Arizona Football

Considering circumstances, winning its most important game in history, “Why not Arizona?”



Jourdon Grandon celebrates his fourth quarter interception Friday with his teammates (Fox screen shot)

Jourdon Grandon celebrates his fourth quarter interception Friday with his teammates (Fox Sports screen shot)

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“Why not us? Why can’t we win it all?”
— Arizona football coach Rich Rodriguez at introductory press conference, Nov. 22, 2011

Arizona senior free safety Jourdon Grandon thinks of the depths of Arizona’s 4-8 season as a redshirt freshman in 2011 as being very distant. It was a year in which the coaching staff that recruited him to Tucson from Avondale was no longer with him on campus after the dust settled.

“It does seem like a lifetime ago,” Grandon said Friday afternoon as a leader of Arizona’s Pac-12 South championship team. “It seems like I’ve had these coaches (Rodriguez and his staff) my whole time here. We’ve grown so close to them.”

Grandon’s smiling face had the residue of war paint applied before Arizona defeated ASU 42-35 at Arizona Stadium in what is for now the most significant game in the history of the program.

His interception in the second half was among a series of big plays that helped Arizona keep its advantage over ASU. In 2011, he also had a fourth-quarter interception of former ASU quarterback Brock Osweiler that preserved the Wildcats’ winning margin in Tempe.

Senior safety Tra’Mayne Bondurant, another Mike Stoops holdover who had 11 tackles, including a sack and two tackles for lost yardage Friday afternoon, was forced to play linebacker for Arizona’s bone-thin lineup as a freshman in the 2011 game at ASU. His maturation and development mirrors the growth of Arizona’s program.


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Arizona middle linebacker Scooby Wright records one of his two sacks against ASU in the Sun Devils' last possession (Fox screen shot)

Arizona middle linebacker Scooby Wright records one of his two sacks against ASU in the Sun Devils’ last possession (Fox screen shot)

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Scooby Wright’s toughness, exemplified by his two sacks and five tackles for loss, is at the fiber of Arizona’s muscle.

The Wildcats earned their first Pac-12 South title by virtue of the victory over the Sun Devils, Rodriguez’s first against Todd Graham and ASU, and UCLA’s upset loss to Stanford at the Rose Bowl.

Three years ago this week, on Nov. 22, 2011, Grandon and others at McKale Center watched and listened as Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne introduced Rodriguez as the new head coach, replacing the fired Stoops, who tapped out after digging the Wildcats out of the hole left by John Mackovic.

“I will not just coach Arizona football,” Rodriguez told the small gathering at McKale. “I will live it.”

He reiterated: “Why not Arizona?”

That Rodriguez catch phrase in Tucson could be mentioned in the College Football Playoff selection committee meeting room in the next couple of weeks.

Arizona (10-2) earned the right to play Oregon (10-1) for the Pac-12 title at Levi Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., next Friday night. The winner could represent the conference in the College Football Playoff semifinals, provided the Ducks beat host Oregon State on Saturday in the Civil War.

The Wildcats, ranked No. 11 in the College Football Playoff rankings, will break into the Top 10 next week because of Friday’s win and No. 8 UCLA’s loss. Eight of the Top 10 teams play Saturday — No. 1 Alabama (against No. 15 Auburn), No. 2 Oregon (at Oregon State), No. 3 Florida State (Florida), No. 4 Mississippi State (at No. 19 Ole Miss), No. 6 Ohio State (Michigan), No. 7 Baylor (Texas Tech), No. 9 Georgia (No. 16 Georgia Tech) and No. 10 Michigan State (at Penn State).

No. 5 TCU beat Texas on Thanksgiving night.

Arizona’s dark-horse hopes rely on Oregon beating the Beavers to set up a more impressive achievement if the Wildcats beat the Ducks again. Upsets must also occur Saturday to give Arizona a boost in the rankings.

“Oh by the way, if (Rodriguez) can rattle the chains in Santa Clara and get another victory against Oregon, who among the top four can say they had two bigger wins than Arizona?” Fox broadcaster Tim Brando said at the end of the telecast. “I throw that out as a caveat for closure today in what became the Pac-12 South championship.”

The most important development Friday is that Rodriguez, his assistant coaches and players, showed the nation, “Why not Arizona?”

The Wildcats survived the grueling competition of the Pac-12 South, one of the best divisions in college football, only behind the SEC West (Alabama, Auburn, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, LSU, Texas A&M and Arkansas). To be crowned champion over UCLA, USC, ASU and Utah is an achievement that ranks high with the top programs in the nation.

Arizona also turned the tide against ASU after losing the first two games against the Sun Devils with Rodriguez, including last year’s embarrassing 58-21 loss at Sun Devil Stadium.

The Sun Devils had not lost at Arizona Stadium since 2008, when Stoops’ best team at Arizona beat ASU 31-10. Two weeks later, the Wildcats beat BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl, which at that time had the same meaning of what the program has achieved this year under Rodriguez.

In four years after tackling the Mackovic disaster at Arizona, Stoops coached the Wildcats to a bowl victory. In three years after replacing the embattled Stoops, who reached his zenith in Tucson with the BYU win, Rodriguez has taken the program to its highest level.

Judging from how the administrators, boosters and players believe in Rodriguez and his staff — who are more like brothers than co-workers given their tight bond and extended background — the program should only continue to improve. As long as the rumors that swirl over Rodriguez and coaching vacancies never become true, the Wildcats will maintain an upward slope.

Staff continuity is essential to Arizona’s burgeoning development.

All of Arizona’s assistant coaches returned from last season. The Wildcats have not had a season of full staff retention since 1999 when Dick Tomey and his staff returned following 12-1 campaign in 1998. Mackovic experienced turnover in each of his three seasons (2001-03) and Stoops, noted for his heated exchanges with with assistants, replaced at least one aide in all eight of his seasons in Tucson.

When asked about Nick Wilson’s 178 yards on 24 carries, Rodriguez noted that assistant Calvin Magee is the best running backs coach in the nation. When asked about Arizona’s aggressive, blitzing defense that recorded seven sacks, Rodriguez mentioned that defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel “is one of the best in the country as well.”

Rodriguez also cited the construction of the Lowell-Stevens facility as a the first reason for Arizona becoming a national success in his three years in Tucson.

He also knows that he has challenges to overcome, such as his 1-5 record against the conference’s standard-bearers UCLA and USC. He realizes his team came a play away from losing to Cal and Washington at home in this magical season.

“We’re not there yet,” he said, “but we’re on our way.”

Rodriguez mentioned in a postgame interview with KCUB 1290-AM’s Brian Jeffries and Lamont Lovett that winning the Pac-12 South is a goal every year and that capturing the conference title is part of the process for loftier goals.

“We always talk about the beginning,” Rodriguez told Jeffries and Lovett. “We talk about, ‘How do you eat an elephant? … One bite at a time.'”

That is another popular Rodriguez phrase along with the Wildcats being “comfortably uncomfortable” and the direction of the program becoming “relevant” nationally.

“Three years ago, people wouldn’t even think we’d have this facility,” Grandon said of Lowell-Stevens. “So, yeah, we’ve surprised a lot of people.”

The Wildcats have never been in a position to win one definitive game for the conference title since moving up from the WAC in 1978.

Considering the circumstances against Oregon and the game’s impact nationally, none of Rodriguez’s sayings are more significant than “Why not Arizona?”

Why not?


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Solomon is currently No. 7 on the season record list at Arizona. Here are the Top 7 totals:
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Only once in Arizona football history has a quarterback thrown for at least 3,000 yards, running back rushed for at least 1,000 yards and receiver compiled at least 1,000 yards in a season. That happened only two years ago with Matt Scott (3,620 passing yards), Ka’Deem Carey (1,929 rushing yards) and Austin Hill (1,364 receiving yards). Never has an Arizona team had a 4,000-yard passer, 1,000-yard passer and 1,000-yard receiver.
3,000/1,000/1,000 CLUB?
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Tackle for lost yardage leaders in Arizona history:
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Note: Ronald Veal highlighted in red because he led Arizona in passing and rushing as a freshman in 1987. Solomon and Wilson are vying to become first freshmen to lead the Wildcats in those categories in the same season in school history.

Compiled by
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Compiled by
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[/ezcol_1half_end] publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He also writes articles for Bleacher Report and Lindy’s College Sports.


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