Thanks to its potent offense and some timely plays from its defense, Arizona defeated Oregon 31-24, propelling it into the national championship race.
Make no mistake about it: the Wildcats were the better team Thursday night. Yes, UA trailed 7-3 at the half, but with the way their offense was moving the ball, it was evident that the ‘Cats would win this contest provided that they stopped shooting themselves in the foot with turnovers.
That’s exactly what happened in the second half. Arizona scored on all three of its third quarter possessions, mounting touchdown drives of 80, 93 and 80 yards to take a 10-point lead heading into the final stanza. Wildcat quarterback Anu Solomon was especially impressive during this interval, completing 8 of 9 passes for 147 yards and a touchdown.
The offense’s stellar play continued into the fourth quarter. Sure, the Wildcats got stopped on downs early in the period, but they pretty much had their way with Ducks from then on. In fact, Arizona’s run game was dominant at the end of the game, to the extent that it was able to convert third-and-long situations on the ground, including a 24-yard gain on third-and-20 that set up the go-ahead touchdown.
As well as the offense played, the Wildcat defense deserves a lot of credit for getting the job done in the second half. Yes, it gave up 445 yards, but the true measure of a defense is how it plays when the game is on the line. Trailing by seven, Oregon had no choice but to go to its vaunted hurry up offense. Instead of giving up the game-tying score – as many teams do against Heisman Trophy candidate Marcus Mariota – the UA defense forced a fumble, killing any chance of a Duck comeback.
Of course, that’s nothing new, as Rich Rodriguez’s squad continues to find a way to win, even when things aren’t going well. Whether it’s a closer-than-expected victory against USTA, a last-second miracle over Cal, or a road win at Autzen Stadium – arguably the toughest place in the country to play – Arizona does what it needs to in order to emerge with a “W.”
That type of moxie is what championship teams are made of.
Yes, I used the word “championship” intentionally, because the Wildcats belong in the College Football Playoff discussion. After all, their win over Oregon is clearly the most impressive victory in the nation to this point in the season. Michigan State didn’t come particularly close to winning in Eugene. Arizona outplayed Oregon for most of Thursday night. With the Ducks still likely to win the Pac-12 North title, this win isn’t going to lose its luster anytime soon.
In other words: if Arizona continues to keep winning games, it’s likely to find itself in a different type of Final Four in the near future.