TUCSON, Ariz. – Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez spent last week telling his players that to make the program relevant again, they’d need to beat a ranked team.
The Wildcats did just that, rolling over No. 18 Oklahoma State, 59-38, Saturday and moving into The Associated Press poll the next day at No. 24, their first ranking in nearly two years.
Once relevance arrived, the Wildcats greeted it with a shrug.
“It’s kind of nice, I guess,” Rodriguez said. “We didn’t talk much about us being ranked but just staying glued to the process. Doing what we like to call keeping ‘the main thing the main thing.’ ”
The thing for Rodriguez is to make the most of what he’s got, which has worked so far.
Coaching a team that doesn’t have a lot of size or depth, Rodriguez has coaxed the Wildcats into a 2-0 start by getting them to play hard and fast.
Led by fifth-year senior Matt Scott, Arizona’s offense has been nearly unstoppable, ranking second nationally with 65 first downs and ninth in total offense at 562.5 yards per game. Rodriguez’s 3-3-5 defense has given up some yards – Oklahoma State had 636 – but has been good at preventing touchdowns and creating turnovers.
And, boy, do these Wildcats play fast.
Rodriguez has instilled a go-go-go mentality in his players and, after needing most of the spring and fall camps to get in good enough shape, they have played at a rapid pace the first two games.
Arizona combined with Toledo for 182 plays to set a school record in a game that featured one snap under center. The Wildcats matched it the next week with 182 more combined plays against the similarly inclined Cowboys.
The combination has put Arizona back into the rankings and in good position to start the season 3-0 with South Carolina State, a Football Championship Subdivision team that likes the spread and to push the tempo, coming up next at Arizona Stadium on Saturday.
“Coach Rodriguez preached to us last week that we want to be relevant again, and now that we are I think we want to stay there and not be cast under a shadow again,” senior offensive lineman Chris Putton said.
One big reason for Arizona’s success has been a player who has climbed out of someone else’s shadow.
Once considered a future star in Tucson, Scott spent the previous two seasons playing behind Nick Foles and redshirted last season while awaiting his chance.
A threat with his arm or his legs, Scott has shredded opposing defenses the first two games.
Against Toledo, he threw for a career-high 387 yards, and hit Terrence Miller on a 10-yard touchdown pass in overtime for the winning score. He followed that up with another superb performance against Oklahoma State, throwing for 320 yards and a pair of scores while leading the Wildcats to their most points ever against a ranked opponent.
Scott’s 707 yards passing is 69 shy of the career best he set in 2010, and he’s tied with Syracuse’s Ryan Nassib for the top spot nationally with 836 yards of total offense.
“When you have a quarterback that can throw as well as Matt, and has the skill set that Matt has, it’ll always give you a chance,” Rodriguez said. “I knew that after our first practices in the spring. Matt can make all the throws. I wish he had more than one year because he’s still learning on the job, but he can make all the throws. He runs well and he’s a competitive guy.”
So are the rest of the Wildcats.
Arizona doesn’t have a lot of depth, particularly on defense, where Rodriguez says he has half the number of players under scholarship he needs. They’re not exactly big up front, either.
What the Wildcats have is grit and a never-back-down attitude.
Rodriguez called them the worst-conditioned team in America when workouts first started in January, but the Wildcats worked hard to get themselves into good enough shape to play at least close to the pace their coach wants.
They’ve also taken to Rodriguez’s outwork-your-opponent mentality, going hard on every play and refusing to back down, even when their opponent is much bigger.
“We might have guys that are smaller or slower, but if the guys are competitive, we’ve got a shot,” Rodriguez said. “Some of them are more competitive than they even know, and we’ll get that out of them. As long as they are competitive, we’ll have a chance.”
It’s working so far.