Arizona football set for memorable November

Arizona football set for memorable November

By Anthony Gimino / Special for Tucson News Now

About the only thing predictable through Arizona's unpredictable season is that the Wildcats will find a way to make it a close game.

Arizona broke the mold Saturday in all the right ways.

With the Wildcats' most complete game of the season -- offense, defense, special teams and that elusive fast start -- Arizona routed Washington State 59-37 in Pullman on Saturday, moving to 6-1 overall and tantalizingly increasing the stakes as the team heads to November.

"We got contributions from all three phases, which was nice," Rodriguez said in his postgame press conference. "The defense made some plays, special teams was huge, and offensively in both the first quarter and the third quarter, we executed pretty well coming out of the gates."

Through the first half of the season, I would have said that the Wildcats deserved their No. 15 national ranking because of their resume -- a 5-1 record that included a win at then-second-ranked Oregon -- but that they didn't really look the part.

Saturday was something different.

With an 81-yard punt return from DaVonte' Neal just 66 seconds into the game, Arizona was off and running to a 31-0 lead in the second quarter. Washington State did manage to score the final 16 points of the half, likely causing UA fans to fear the worst, but unruffled redshirt freshman quarterback Anu Solomon led the Wildcats to touchdowns on their first two drives of the second half ... and that was that.

Arizona boosted its lead to 45-16 less than five minutes after halftime.

"I thought Anu saw the field well," Rodriguez said in his postgame radio interview. "That was big coming out of the third quarter, getting some fast-tempo scores to set the tempo for the second half."

More good news came as Arizona was in the air back to Tucson.

Utah scored a touchdown with 8 seconds left in Salt Lake City to beat USC 24-21. The Trojans, who delivered the only loss to the season to Arizona, suffered their second conference loss and fell out of first place in the South.

The new division standings are like this:

Arizona State 4-1
Arizona 3-1
Utah 3-1
USC 4-2
UCLA 3-2
Colorado 0-5

What those standings mean is that the Wildcats -- with impending games against the Sun Devils and Utes -- will enter November with control of their own destiny in the league race. Yeah, there's still a loooong way to go, but it's not every year that Arizona gets close enough to knock on that door.

"We questioned ourselves; can we bounce back?" Solomon told the Pac-12 Networks, talking about the loss to USC two weeks ago. "We're doing just fine. All we have to do is keep doing what we do."

So, what went right against WSU?

--Scooby Wright was the second coming of Tedy Bruschi. The coaches tweaked their 3-3-5 scheme and often used their sophomore middle linebacker as an edge rusher against the Cougars' relentless passing attack. With the same kind of Bruschi instincts and eerily familiar spin moves, Wright three times swatted the ball from Connor Halliday's hands, resulting in three sacks and three forced fumbles. Wright has 14 tackles for loss, nine sacks and five forced fumbles this season.

--Solomon perhaps played his most complete game -- 26 of 38 for 294 yards, with five touchdowns and no interceptions. A couple of those scoring passes included pinpoint throws (and great catches, too). "As we go further and further along and he continues to grow, we're going to be that much better," Rodriguez said.

--The defense. Ignore WSU's 489 passing yards and 543 total yards. The Cougars gained 265 of their total yards on their final four drives when Arizona was up by so many points that it was safe for fans to channel surf to other games on TV. The thing to pay attention to was that the Cats dominated defensively at the start of each half.

--Cam Denson got his first career interception. Rodriguez keeps hinting at the potential for increased playing time for the freshman cornerback from Salpointe Catholic, and he got it when corner Jarvis McCall got banged up in the first half. Denson might be raw, but he brings a playmaking vibe to the defense, as his INT showed.

--More: The running game did enough (Terris Jones-Grigsby finished with 107 yards on 13 carries), Cayleb Jones scooped up a late onside kick, stiff-armed a Cougar and scored on a 44-yard return, and safety Jared Tevis had 13 tackles, including 3.5 for loss.

So, as Arizona likes to say, it's "on to the next one," which is Saturday at UCLA.

Two months ago, the Bruins were a chic pick to win the national title, and a game in the Rose Bowl seemed like a certain loss for Arizona. But while quarterback Brett Hundley is still an elite talent, UCLA's offensive line and defensive front have been lacking. Hitting the reset button, I'd rank the Wildcats' five remaining games, from easiest to toughest, like this:

5. vs. Colorado, Nov. 8
4. vs. Washington, Nov. 15
3. at UCLA, Nov. 1
2. vs. ASU, Nov. 28
1. at Utah, Nov. 22

UCLA, ASU and Utah are ranked. Washington has four potential first-round picks on defense. Colorado is getting closer to beating somebody, losing to Cal and UCLA in double overtime this season, and by five to Oregon State.

It's daunting, no doubt. But the Wildcats' team effort at Washington State added fuel to the notion that this, finally, could be UA's November to remember.

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.