The Wildcats’ gritty, gutty, improbable 39-36 over No. 9 USC has the Wildcats believing once again that they can compete with anyone.
It’s hard to argue. Saturday — which featured UA’s second win over a ranked team this season — might be the day (the long day) the Arizona football program found its groove under coach Rich Rodriguez.
USC (6-2 overall, 4-2), meanwhile, couldn’t keep its groove and has, at least for this year, lost its place among the college football powers.
“I do think it makes us relevant,” said Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez, who used the same tune and tone after Arizona defeated then-No. 18 Oklahoma State nearly two months ago.
“It doesn’t make us a Top 10 team (because) we’ve lost three games, but hopefully it gives our guys confidence. Hopefully it’ll make recruits sit up and notice, whether they were here or watching it on TV.
“Our goal is to build the best program in America. We’ve got a long way to go. But the process has started.”
Indeed. Wins like Saturday’s are program builders — or, at the very least, help accelerate the building process.
Regardless, UA is believing now. Or again.
“There’s always some level of belief,” Rodriguez said. “I also have said that I have to be careful in patting them on the rear so much. I’ll enjoy this for 24 hours, watch film and then move on.”
At least it’ll be a happier film review when compared to those after most of the Wildcats’ recent performances.
This time, unlike in heartbreaking losses to Oregon State and Stanford earlier this season, Arizona didn’t fold. It showed “some resiliency,” as Rodriguez put it.
“It does wonders,” said safety Marquis Flowers, who had seven tackles and two interceptions. “The losses against Oregon State and Stanford still hurt, but we wanted the defense to step up and put the success on our backs. All week, the coaches were on us by pushing us to come out ready.”
It took awhile, but UA did, outscoring USC 26-15 in the second half after being down 21-13 at halftime. Earlier in the week, Rodriguez said he didn’t think his team had to play the “perfect game” for UA to win but had to create turnovers and play aggressive. It certainly did.
“It’s good to win the close ones,” Rodriguez said. “It gets guys to believe in themselves. I try to give them a lot of confidence during the week. We focus on the process.”
The process has Arizona at 5-3 overall and 2-3 in the Pac-12 South. And the Wildcats, who already have played Oregon, USC and Oregon State, could win the division by winning out, needing the Trojans to take only one more loss (and they still play Oregon).
For USC, the loss has the preseason Pac-12 favorites wondering how it’s all gone so wrong. The Trojans have lost two games this season and have no hope of winning a national title, which many expected before the season.
“From here, we are just going to stick together,” said USC quarterback Matt Barkley, who threw for 493 yards and three touchdowns but had two interceptions. “That’s the beauty of football. You experience some of the most spurring moments of your life, and you learn to cope with the moments like losses like these.
“Moving forward, we just have to come out hard and realize that we can still do something special.”
National championship notwithstanding. Those hopes were dashed in the desert sun in a game that lasted four-plus hours and saw 1,206 yards in total offense. USC had 618 total yards, including a Pac-12 record 345 receiving yards by Marqise Lee, who was unstoppable for much of the day; UA had 588. But USC had five turnovers, which proved to be its undoing.
“It’s a very discouraging loss,” said USC coach Lane Kiffin. “It wasn’t about effort. I thought our players had great effort. We made a lot of mistakes and weren’t able to catch up.”
In fact, the Trojans didn’t need to catch up — not at first. They needed to hold on. And they couldn’t.
USC appeared to be cruising with a 28-13 lead midway through the third quarter. That’s when Arizona quarterback Matt Scott took over. First he scored on a 10-yard touchdown run, then he hit Dan Buckner with a 9-yard TD pass. UA entered the fourth quarter with hope, down just 28-26.
On their next possession, the Wildcats got a 7-yard Ka’Deem Carey touchdown run with 10:46 left. UA followed that with what turned out to be the game-winning drive, capped by a 7-yard slant pass for a touchdown from Scott to David Richards with 3:36 left.
Scott finished with 369 yards and three touchdown passes and added 100 yards and one touchdown on the ground. He left the game after the final touchdown pass, as he was hit hard and was seen throwing up on the sidelines after the play.
Scott was said to be fine after the game, but he was not made available for postgame interviews.
“He made a heck of a throw, so he looked pretty good,” said Rodriguez. “He may have been a little foggy at the time. But whatever he had for breakfast is no longer in him … it’s about on the 20-yard line. It was a phenomenal throw and won the game for us.”
Rodriguez added: “I’ve said this before: Matt Scott’s a stud. He’s phenomenal. He’s a competitor.”
He and Rodriguez have also turned Arizona into one.