It took three hours and 34 minutes, and a big throw by a back-up quarterback, but the University of Arizona football team now has the six wins it takes to become bowl-eligible.
The unranked Cats, a .500 team coming off three straight losses, took Saturday night’s game at Arizona Stadium into a second overtime period before pulling off the stunning 37-30 upset of No. 10-ranked Utah.
For UofA head coach Rich Rodriguez, it was a validation of his program, which has struggled with key injuries almost the entire season. In addition, his schedule was set up without a bye week during the regular season and more late night games than usual, which has been a bone of contention with Rodriguez and an issue he has publicly criticized.
“With everything that has happened with the injuries, and the way the schedule was lined up, I think maybe some of the doubts (about how good this team is) understandably started to creep in,” he said in his post-game comments.
Rodriguez is in his fourth year as head coach and this win continues a pattern. In each of his four seasons, Arizona has knocked off a top-10 team.
“This is one of the best (wins) for sure” he pointed out. “I am not going to say that it is the best, but it is one of the best since I’ve been here, simply because I don’t think that a lot of folks thought that it would happen.”
But the Cats served notice early that they weren’t listening to the talking heads who predicted a romp by a Utah team that was being given consideration as a College Football Playoff contender. They jumped out to a 10-0 lead and were still ahead 20-17 at halftime.
The Wildcats, the reigning Pac-12 South champions, had good reason not to be intimidated by Utah’s success this season. They’ve beaten the Utes, who were 8-1 coming into the game, four consecutive times now.
Both teams put up a lot of offense in the first half of yesterday’s game to set the tone for what would be a closely-contested battle. Arizona piled up 269 yards and Utah ran and threw for 218 before intermission.
After playing to a 27-27 tie in regulation, both teams had to settle for a field goal in the first overtime. But the Cats got the ball first in the second OT and promptly scored when Jerrard Randall hit Nate Phillips with a 25-yard TD pass, and the Utes failed to respond when they got their chance.
Randall had entered the game with 9:25 left in regulation, replacing the starting QB Anu Solomon, who left with an injury following a helmet-to-helmet hit. The pass to Phillips for the win was his only completion in the game.
Solomon was on his way to a big night before leaving the game, passing for 277 yards and two touchdowns, while also picking up another 86 rushing.
Rodriguez should be getting a thank-you note from USC head coach Clay Helton. Arizona’s victory over Utah drops the Utes into a first-place tie with USC in conference – and the Trojans own the tiebreaker after becoming the only other team to beat Utah this season.
Up next is a game with perhaps even more significance – the annual Territorial Cup rivalry game with Arizona State. The Sun Devils (5-5) are also having their problems this season, failing to live up to pre-season expectations, but will also be coming into Saturday’s contest with some momentum after a 27-17 win over Washington.
But, as we all know, records and past performance mean nothing when the Territorial Cup is at stake.
This should be a good game between two teams that are far better than their records indicate, with plenty of offense to keep fans at Sun Devil Stadium on their feet throughout the afternoon.
ASU, which leads 2-1 in games between the current head coaches, gets the edge in this one, thanks to home-field advantage. But it likely will go down to the wire.
(Photo: Arizona Athletic)