A rivalry game can bring out the best in a player.
That’s the last remaining hope for Arizona as it heads into Friday night’s Territorial Cup matchup against Arizona State, trying to avoid a winless conference season. It’s a rivalry game. Anything can happen. Throw the records out the window (no, seriously, throw those awful records out the window).
The Wildcats, outmatched man-for-man — even by a 5-6 Arizona State team that has lost five in a row — have to cling to the notion that there exists an untapped reservoir of passion after eight consecutive defeats — the last five coming by an average of 34 points in games in which they have led for exactly zero seconds.
“We don’t have players like we had previously who just loved football,” senior Samajie Grant said Tuesday. “We just have a bunch of players who want to play football and be out there and say they wear a jersey and stuff like that.”
If there is a team MVP, it’s Grant, who switched from receiver to running back at midseason and has played as hard, as tough, as well as anybody could expect from a guy who hadn’t played tailback since high school.
“I guess this season has taught me to not give up,” he said. “But I had that in me.”
He did. Too many of his teammates didn’t.
Grant is a senior, this is his last game, and he definitely has the floor to speak his mind.
How would he turn around this program? Start by giving some guys the boot.
“I mean, if you get rid of the weak links, that’s what it is,” he said.
“That’s just being honest. I can see it myself. It’s a lot of people who don’t love the game, and you can’t play college football if you don’t love it, or else you’re just going to be average, and that’s kind of a waste of time — a waste of our time for the players who love it to have to be playing on a team who doesn’t love it.”
That’s been coach Rich Rodriguez‘s mantra — he wants guys who love the game, not just like it. This team is filled — other than a couple of guys who played for Mike Stoops before taking Mormon missions — with his recruits. As RichRod said after last week’s 42-17 loss at Oregon State, talking about a host of issues, “it goes back to me in recruiting,” which is obvious, inarguable and the whole dang truth.
Have always appreciated Samajie Grant’s openness and he was pretty candid today about what needs to get fixed for Arizona to get back
— Matt Moreno (@MattGOAZCATS) November 22, 2016
Grant said he didn’t see the team’s collective lack of fire in the belly at the start of the season.
“I definitely didn’t. I was fooled,” he said.
“But you don’t find it out until bad things start happening. When you’re winning, everybody seems like they love it, everybody is having fun because the good stuff is going on. But after the losing, the second game, you could see who the weak links were and who were the players who didn’t love it.”
As an example, without names, he talked about guys who were relegated to special teams, who then didn’t play well on special teams but didn’t spend any extra time in the weight room or elsewhere to improve their performance or depth-chart standing.
“That’s kind of embarrassing because you would think somebody would want to work on it and get stronger and things like that,” Grant said. “That’s how I spotted them all out.”
Grant is a lead-by-example kind of player. He talked last week about “having a voice” with the team, but wasn’t sure what good it would do.
“What can I say to somebody to make them want to play harder?” Grant wondered. “If you just don’t have it in you, and I have to say it to you, then I probably don’t want to be playing next to you. There is no reason I should tell somebody, ‘Oh, let’s finish hard.'”
Maybe it can happen Friday night. Last game of the season. Rivalry. Let it all hang out. Finish hard.
“We’re going to have to come out first play rocking,” Grant said.
But what if the Wildcats don’t? They haven’t led since early in the second half against Utah on Oct. 8. If ASU gets a lead, then what? Will it lead to another blow loss, a final indignity?
Grant does have a voice. And, without even raising it Tuesday, he used it.
“How can a person play and not give his all?” he said. “It don’t even feel right.”
Arizona has one last chance to at least get that part right against Arizona State.