Ghosts of the past keep coming at UA’s Rich Rodriguez

Rich Rodriguez exorcised one of the ghosts from his past when his Arizona Wildcats beat Toledo in the football season opener last week.

But now he’s faced with a much bigger demon, one that has been a frustrating nemesis to the University of Arizona program – and was one of the final nails in the coffin of his predecessor…the Cowboys of Oklahoma State.

The Wildcats’ new head football coach, starting over in Tucson after a disastrous three years at Michigan, won his first game of the new era by beating Toledo, 24-17, in overtime.  By escaping with the win, he avenged a humiliating 13-10 loss to the Rockets in his first season at the helm of the Wolverines; he was fired following a 15-22 run in Ann Arbor that started with a school-record nine losses in his first season in charge of the tradition-rich national power.

This win also gets a big monkey off Rodriguez’s back.  This is the first time he’s won a season opener in five different college jobs as a head coach.

But Oklahoma State will be tonight’s opponent, presenting a much bigger challenge than the opener with a FCS team from the Mid-American Conference.  The Cowboys entered the season ranked No. 19 in the country, and moved up to No. 18 after an 84-0 drubbing of Savannah State last weekend.

Fans will remember that it was OSU that handed the Cats an embarrassing 36-10 loss in the 2010 Alamo Bowl, and then whipped them again two games later, 37-14, in the second game of the 2011 season.

The two losses reaffirmed Arizona’s inability to play with nationally-ranked teams, as OSU was in both meetings, and set the stage for Mike Stoops‘ firing three games later.  In 2009, the Cats got burned by Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl, 33-0.  Both bowl losses, of course, were telecast to the entire country.

Now RichRod gets his shot at the Cowboys – and a chance to re-invigorate the fan base with a win over a nationally-ranked opponent that proved to be too much for his predecessor.  After the Cats barely squeezed out the overtime win against Toledo, Rodriguez used the media to ask Arizona fans for patience as he tries to install his new spread-option offense and get players accustomed to his new system.

One thing Arizona does have going for it tonight is the simple fact that OSU is pretty much untested so far.

The blow-out against Savannah State didn’t even give the Cowboy starters enough time on the field to work up a good sweat.  Most of the starting players were pulled from the game before the first quarter ended, trying to keep from running up an even more lopsided score on a team that has won just one game in each of the previous two seasons.

The Cowboys scored on their first five possessions and had a 35-0 lead in the first quarter before beginning to clear the bench, going well down the depth chart to keep the game manageable.

The freshman starting quarterback, Wes Lunt, was on the field for just four offensive series, throwing just 11 passes, but scooping up 129 yards in the brief appearance.

And OSU’s top receiver returning from last year, Tracy Moore, didn’t even get that much of a warm-up before taking on Arizona.  He was suspended for the game.

So Arizona gets a team that is pretty much playing its first ‘real’ game tonight.

This will be the third straight season the two teams have met, and the ninth match-up overall.  It will be the Cowboys’ first visit to Tucson since 1942; the game will be televised on the new Pac-12 Network.

It will be important for Arizona to keep the Cowboys corralled for the first half.   Big halftime leads have been the OSU key to winning the past couple of years.

Unlike the Toledo experience, this one isn’t likely to be decided in overtime.  It won’t be that close.

(Photo: OSU Athletics)