Wildcats beat Ducks 31-24: biggest road win since '81

Wildcats beat Ducks 31-24: biggest road win since '81

By Anthony Gimino / Special for Tucson News Now


When Phillip Wright III was a baby, his father looked at him and commented, "Oh, my little Scooby-Doo."


Look at his baby now.


Sophomore linebacker Scooby Wright is all grown up, and so are the Arizona Wildcats under third-year coach Rich Rodriguez, stomping into the national spotlight Thursday night with a 31-24 win over the second-ranked Oregon Ducks in Eugene.


Wright had the play of the game, ripping the ball out of the arm of erstwhile Heisman frontrunner Marcus Mariota while making a tackle, rolling over with the ball in his left hand with 2:11 left. From there, the Wildcats got a first down and ran out the clock on the biggest upset of the college football season.


"A tough environment against a top-ranked team, it's pretty sweet right now," Rodriguez told ESPN after the game.


Arizona is 5-0, will be ranked when the new polls come out Sunday, and is headed toward what is now going to be a five-star hyped home game against USC on Oct. 11. UA athletics director Greg Byrne is going to sell some tickets. Michigan fans will cry that their school fired Rodriguez in 2010.


All this madness in Eugene -- the out-of-nowhere defensive effort, quarterback Anu Solomon's big second half, tag-team running backs Terris Jones-Grigsby and Nick Wilson acting like one Ka'Deem Carey, Scooby's strip, the controversial unsportsmanlike conduct penalty late in the game against Oregon -- came just 12 days after arguably the greatest finish in Arizona football history.


The Hill Mary followed by one of the greatest victories in school history?


Seriously? How's your heart?


You could tell Arizona to take a bow, but that's what helped take down Oregon on Thursday night.


You can be sure that the national discussion will center on the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against Oregon defensive lineman Tony Washington after he made a third-down sack of Solomon, leaving the Cats with an apparent 34-yard field-goal attempt to break a 24-24 tie. But as Washington headed toward the Oregon sideline, he stopped and bowed toward the crowd. Fifteen yards and a first down for Arizona.


Jones-Grigsby eventually scored on a 1-yard run with 2:58 left, and then Scooby made his play ... and Arizona had its second consecutive victory over Oregon. The Cats won 42-16 last season and made it two in a row despite being 23.5-point underdogs.


"Two years ago, we came up here and played pretty well in the first half, but I don't think we really believed we could win," Rodriguez said on the postgame radio show on 1290-AM. "And I told the team that. But, now the fact that we beat them last year, our team believed they would win."


This result was nothing fluky. While others will talk about the penalty or focus on what's wrong with Oregon, this game was about the Wildcats and how far they have come under Rodriguez.


"I just think of the hard work that has taken place since the day they got there," Byrne said about the coaching staff on 1290-AM.


"I always remember that first staff meeting when Coach Rodriguez went in and said, 'You're my team and you're my guys.' He's gotten guys to buy in from the get-go. The hard work that has taken place by everyone in the program, these are the results."


Arizona was hardly perfect Thursday night. UA had to settle for a red-zone field goal on its first drive. Solomon was intercepted in the first half. The offense sputtered most of the first half, then lost a fumble on a bad handoff exchange at the Oregon 10 with 21 seconds to go.


"Sometimes he makes a freshman mistake, and we put a lot on him, but he keeps battling," Rodriguez said of Solomon.


"In the second half, he made some good decisions. And, man, our backs ran hard and our line did a good job. We just executed better. Calmed down a little bit. We stayed with it. Sometimes, when you're not scoring a lot, there is a tendency to panic and to abandon everything. We didn't do that.


"I was proud of the staff and the players. We didn't abandon everything. We just hung with what we're doing and said, 'We're going to be all right.'"


Never-nervous Solomon was 13 of 18 for 217 yards and a touchdown in the second half. Remember how Ka'Deem Carey ran 48 times for 206 yards against Oregon last season? Jones-Grigsby and Wilson did even better. They combined to rush 40 times for 207 yards. Wilson scored three times, including on a 34-yard pass, when he ran over All-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu near the goal line.


The defense tackled well and ruggedly, sacking Mariota five times.


"Our defense kept us in the game the whole first half and played really, really hard against some really talented players," Rodriguez said. "I thought we did a good job of getting a little pressure with our blitz packages, but we really did a good job of coverage in the open field."


While heads spin over what the Wildcats have accomplished -- less than two weeks ago, they trailed Cal by 18 points entering the fourth quarter, on the brink of disaster -- it's now unavoidably tantalizing to think UA is capable of big prizes this season.


How capable?


"I don't know," Rodriguez said with a smile for the ESPN cameras. "We're capable of winning a really good game on the road. We'll take it and get ready for a really good team next week."


Anthony Gimino has covered University of Arizona athletics for more than two decades, including as the football beat writer for the Arizona Daily Star and the columnist for the Tucson Citizen.


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