As is customary at every ballpark in college football, the press box elevator arrived with two minutes remaining in the half. Visiting coaches go first, descending to field level, prepared to say, if nothing else, “Guys, we’ve got this figured out.”
On Saturday night, Utah play-caller Dennis Erickson was first in the elevator, a crumpled game plan in his hands and a fitful expression on his face.
Erickson’s star-bound quarterback had completed just three passes for 15 yards, was injured and out for the night. The coach’s keep-the-faith talk had to be pretty creative. Something like:
“Guys, all we need is for Arizona to fumble a punt. And for us score on a 55-yard trick pass. And for Arizona to blow a couple of fourth-down plays. And for our new quarterback — that guy in the corner, No. 12, Adam something — to play like Tom Brady. I’ve got it all figured out.”
It was a football fantasy come true. The Utes did all of those things, rallied from a 20-7 deficit, seized a 21-20 lead, and wolfed down the momentum so thoroughly you’d thought the Wildcats would choke.
But neither Erickson nor the Utes could easily swallow Saturday’s make-believe type finish at Arizona Stadium. Ka’Deem Carey would all but fumble the game away with 6:29 remaining, and then, in a burst of theatrical redemption, bolt 44 yards for a clinching touchdown.
Arizona won 35-24 and the post-game elevator was held an extra minute or two as the press box attendant waited for Erickson to walk, ever-so-slowly, from the Utes’ booth to reality.
The Wildcats did just about everything a team could do to lose a game, putting themselves in predicament upon predicament, just to figure it out in the fourth quarter.
It was a lot more than a keep-the-faith night. It was a step-on-the-accelerator, turn-the-corner victory, a rally that puts Arizona in position to do a lot more than just tread water this season.
Next? Colorado, then Cal, the two most punchless teams in Pac-12 football.
Beating Utah was a swing game and then some, for both teams, and on Saturday night the Utes found that Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez wouldn’t step into a punch the way Stanford did a week earlier.
Stanford was predictable in its 27-21 loss in Salt Lake City last week, but there was no book on Arizona, and especially not on UA quarterback B.J. Denker. The quarterback’s steely performance, his escapability and his ability to hit on late-game passes, rewarded RichRod for months of instruction and direction.
Denker’s two game-turning completions, for a total of 43 yards, were caught by true freshman receiver Nate Phillips. Denker to Phillips.
Who called that in advance?
RichRod was relentless, rarely looking at his play-call list on the sideline, preferring to go by intuition and memory, urging his team to hurry up, play after play, rarely giving the Utes a chance to gather themselves.
Arizona ran 88 plays, 40 of them rushes by Ka’Boom, a school record. That’s what it took to beat Utah. Not 39. But 40. The last one was the best one, 44 yards to the end zone.
By comparison, Stanford tried to punch it out with Utah a week ago, snapping just 56 plays. RichRod chose not to tip his hand.
Unless you are playing and coaching at the highest level in college football, there are a lot of geniuses-of-the-week, many of them produced on home turf, with the crowd roaring and your players giving extra oomph.
The trick is not to succumb to the noise, the you’ve-arrived chatter. In that regard, Utah, in its third season of Pac-12 football, was probably still a bit tipsy from beating No. 5 Stanford. A trap game? Sure.
By comparison, bloodied by tough road losses at Washington and USC, the UA was motivated; more than a simple barricade. The Wildcats, at home, were a full-on roadblock.
And Utah took the bait.
A lot of the credit goes to UA defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel, who fully knew that the Utes completed 12 swing/bubble passes to beat Stanford. But on Saturday, the Utes did none of that, not throwing a single bubble pass, and Casteel was ready for the run.
His defense limited Utah to 329 yards, its fewest yards of the season (it averaged 424). Arizona’s defensive front, especially Sione Tuihalamaka, who made eight tackles, and Reggie Gilbert, who made two tackles behind scrimmage, were game-changers.
If there is a genius-of-the-week, it’s Casteel.
At this stage of RichRod’s makeover of Arizona football, one game can’t wreck your season (unless it’s ASU), and one game can’t make you whole.
But beating Utah, gaining 468 yards, rallying to win a game that many Arizona teams of the last 13 years would have lost, means that the going-down elevator is no longer being held for you.