Great upset, greater win for near-perfect Arizona

TUCSON, Ariz. — Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said earlier in the week that he didn’t feel his team had to play a perfect game to beat No. 5 Oregon on Saturday.

And while the Wildcats’ performance might not have been perfect, it wasn’t far off, as they knocked off the Ducks 42-16 at Arizona Stadium in what was certainly their best all-around outing in two years under Rodriguez.

“Today, we didn’t play perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but when you bring that kind of energy (where) the offense is keeping (the defense) off the field and we’re giving the ball back to them …” Arizona senior linebacker Jake Fischer said. “We’re all working in unison as one. We can beat anybody (when that happens).”

Clearly, this was Rodriguez’s signature win in his two years at Arizona, and it was biggest win for the program since a 16-3 victory over No. 1 Washington in 1992. The Wildcats hadn’t beaten a top-five team since upsetting then-No. 2 Oregon 34-24 in Tucson in 2007.

“You beat a No. 5 team in the country on senior day,” Rodriguez said, “it’s pretty special.”

Rodriguez said didn’t know where to rank it on his all-time list, so he didn’t try. But it was a big one, without question — Oregon entered as a 20-point favorite — and it set up another huge game next week against rival Arizona State in the regular-season finale for both teams.

As for this contest, the Wildcats did everything they could have hoped for and more, although Rodriguez said the nerves didn’t dissipate until Arizona got its final first down late in the game.

The Wildcats are now 7-4 overall and 4-4 in the Pac-12. The Ducks dropped to 9-2 overall and 6-2 in conference play, with the latter mark being the significant one, as the loss gave Stanford the Pac-12 North title and ended Oregon’s run at another Rose Bowl.

“They were playing really hot and their system worked really well,” Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said.

It helps to have one of the best running backs in college football.

Arizona junior Ka’Deem Carey rushed for 202 yards and four touchdowns on a whopping 48 carries. And when he broke a 20-yard run in the third quarter, he became the school’s all-time leading rusher yards, surpassing Trung Canidate’s mark of 3,824 career yards. Carey now has 3,913 yards.

A quarter later, he became the school’s all-time touchdown leader with 49, breaking Art Luppino’s career record with a 1-yard scoring run that put the Wildcats ahead 35-9.

Carey called it a “great moment,” and Arizona acknowledged it in a video tribute right after.

“I wanted to have the O-line in the picture with me because I’m not the only one working,” he said. “It’s a together thing. All helped me get it.”

Carey said one of his inspirations has been the records posted in the stadium, which appear alongside big upsets from years past.

“We (hadn’t) had one this year, so I’m looking at that and thinking, ‘We had to leave this season with a positive,'” Carey said. “Let’s make history. We will have a picture up (from this game).”

Said Rodriguez: “Ka’Deem is still about the team first. He’s a physical, hungry runner. The guys love blocking for him, because he’s going to get everything he can out of every run.”

Senior quarterback B.J. Denker, meanwhile, had the game of his life, connecting on 19 of 22 passes for 178 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for 102 on 14 carries. He’ll long remember it as the day he outplayed Heisman hopeful Marcus Mariota, who threw for 308 yards for the Ducks but had his first two interceptions of the season.

“He was dialed in and accurate,” Rodriguez said. “We didn’t throw the ball downfield a lot … but he was really sharp in seeing the field. Last week, maybe he didn’t play as well, but on the big stage for a guy nobody knew about out of high school and nobody knew about out of junior college and nobody knew about two months ago, I’m pretty proud of B.J. Denker.”

Overall, Arizona rushed for 304 yards and is now 5-0 when surpassing 300 yards on the ground this season.

And the defense, sometimes criticized this season, held Oregon to 16 points, 34 shy of its season average.

“We were zoning in on what they were going to do and made the necessary adjustments,” Fischer said. “We did a good job at getting after the quarterback and making him uncomfortable.”

The performance was so dominant that by halftime, Arizona Stadium seemed to have an influx of students hoping to witness history. And, of course, the surging crowd stormed the field when ti was over.

Rodriguez was all smiles, giving one-liners to the media but adding that he’d enjoy this one for 24 hours before preparing for next week’s game with Arizona State.

“It was a great win,” Rodriguez said.

The Wildcats played with emotion and conviction, something they seemed to lack the week before in a 24-17 home loss to Washington State. What a difference a week makes.

It was an apparent role reversal, it was Oregon, which had talked this week about the disappointment of playing for another Rose Bowl berth rather than a national championship, that bumbled and stumbled its way to a defeat, dropping numerous passes and suffering four turnovers.

Arizona, on the other hand, was nearly flawless.

Denker called Saturday his “redemption” for a week ago.

“I didn’t play my best, and we didn’t play our best,” Denker said of the loss to Washington State. “I just wanted to prove that I can play football here and that we can play football here against a big-time football team like that. We are a good football team, and when we put it all together …”

Oregon unraveled early. On the first play of scrimmage, in fact, when Mariota threw his first interception of the year — after a Pac-12 record 353 throws without one — as Josh Huff couldn’t come up with what appeared to be an easy catch and the ball deflected to cornerback Shaquille Richardson, who volleyed it as he was falling out of bounds to freshman linebacker Scooby Wright, who finished off the pick.

“To me that was one of the keys,” said Rodriguez. “Shaq did it to perfection (on the interception). That was a clinic. I thought that set the tone.”

From there, the Arizona offense took over. And, as Rodriguez said, “our guys were dialed in.”

The Wildcats scored on the ensuing possession and eventually made the lead 14-0, playing more like the Ducks than the Ducks were.

Arizona had Oregon on its heels all game, although a bend-but-don’t-break defense did allow the Ducks to move the ball at times. To that point, on Oregon drove 82 yards on its first possession of the second but couldn’t punch it in from the 6-yard line. Mariota threw an incomplete pass on fourth down as the Wildcats retained a 28-9 lead.

“We tackled well,” Rodriguez said of the defense. “They got a lot of yards, but they have a lot of fast guys and a lot of first-round picks. But our guys rallied to the ball and tackled well. They had a few drops that helped us. We just kept plugging along.”