TUCSON, Ariz. – Facing first and 10 at its own 25-yard line, Arizona needed two things and two things only – a first down and for time to dwindle.
One would bring on the other.
USC knew it just as much as the Wildcats.
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And Arizona did it.
Sophomore running back Ka’Deem carried the ball nine yards here; two yards there.
Arizona needs to do it again.
Carey and the Cats do it again.
And the clock – and potential thunder – rolls. It shows to Arizona’s determination.
“It was just an overwhelming feeling,” center Addison Bachman said. “We’ve worked on it in practice a bunch. And to see it work against USC, it’s … ”
Bachman let the words tail off, but you get the sentiment.
What the Wildcats need now is to carry that over for another week, to this week’s road game at UCLA. Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez hopes so as UA stands at 5-3 overall and No. 22 in the BCS poll and are suddenly a factor in the Pac-12 South.
“The key to winning close games is being able to run it when everyone knows you are going to run,’’ said Rodriguez. “Those two first downs were huge. I hope it gave us a little confidence (for the future).
“We’re not a great running team but those two first downs may have been the two biggest of the year.”
And this from a team that leads the country in first downs per game at 31 a game.
“It was important to get those two first downs,” said Carey, who was the workhorse in the entire drive in gaining 20 yards on seven carries. “They said we needed two first downs to make it a great game.
That’s what we focused on.”
Arizona actually could have used three. In not getting that third one, the Wildcats had to punt the ball, allowing Southern California one more attempt.
“When they said we needed one more I said, ‘you’re pushing it right now,’ ” Carey said, able to smile days later.
Arizona offensive line coach Robert Anae said he “wished” the group would have been able to get that third first down, but overall “it was very exciting; mission accomplished.”
Arizona made USC use two timeouts, and the clock had been drained to 55 seconds. Arizona punter Kyle Dugandzic followed with a perfect punt, putting USC on its own 10-yard line.
“That’s good football, really good football,” Anae said. “We jelled as a team at a very critical point in the game.”
Arizona has jelled a lot this year. Of course, there have been moments when it just couldn’t hold on near the end to get the victory. Read: Stanford and Oregon State late-game meltdowns.
But it’s clear, Arizona isn’t the team of yesteryear. It’s got gumption and grit. The kick-me signs were shed a long time ago.
“Every play counts,” said Bachman. “You can tell in every game we have worn down that (opposing) defense. That’s big. The second effort is our effort.”
That dig-down-deep mentality has come from Rodriguez, a no-nonsense good ol’ boy from West Virginia. The players, many leftovers from the Mike Stoops era, bought into his system “right away,” according to Bachman.
It starts with believing if you work hard, good things will happen. The Wildcats’ willingness to work and play hard has been evident on the field — whether it’s powering for a first down to prolong a drive in the waning moments, or swarming and popping the ball carrier on special teams and defense.
“Rich Rod has brought so much to the program. Every time he steps on the field he makes us want to play for him,” said Carey. “He’s not just one of those coaches where it’s all on (the player), but you want to perform for Coach just as much as you want to perform for yourself.
“He’s invested a lot, so you go out there (and work).”
Carey agree that Rodriguez manages a good balance between get-on-you and pat-you-on-the-back.
“If you are not on top of your things, he’s going to hop on you,” Carey said. “He’ll tell you you need to get going. At the same time, if you make a good play or do something good, then he’s going to pat you on your back and keep you going. He wants to make sure we are on the right path. I respect that as a coach. It makes you want to play for him.”
Rodriguez must strike the right chord. Because there is plenty of season to be played, he must ride that fine line of praise (to keep the belief system high) and instruction (they still need to get better). They might not be the deepest or most talented team, or always in the right position to make a play, but one thing he won’t scrimp on is demanding complete effort.
“We are playing pretty hard, but that’s to be expected,” Rodriguez said. “I hope you wouldn’t have to beg guys to play hard – I think there is another level we can get to. When we get to the point where we are playing more guys and not just playing 14 or 15 on defense – when we’re playing actually 22 or 24 on both sides, then I think they’ll play even harder. I think they’re playing pretty hard for the most part, but we grade effort and physicalness more than anything, and I think there is still another level we can get to.”