• This story is courtesy of the Arizona Daily Wildcat
In Arizona’s 39-36 upset of USC on Saturday, the Wildcats were down 21-13 at the half.
Arizona was unable to move the ball on the first drive of the second half, resulting in a three-and-out, before another USC score made it 28-13.
Students and other fans began to leave the stadium under the assumption that this was the same old story.
The Wildcats had a chance to go up 17-0 and put the Trojans on their heels early, but couldn’t. They lost all momentum with the early third quarter punt, so according to recent history, the Wildcats were going to fold, right?
This Arizona (5-3, 2-3 Pac-12) team is different at its core.
It fights. It plays to, and through the whistle in some cases, resulting in a personal foul or two. But the important thing is that this time around, the Wildcats push back when the big boys try to bully them in games.
Under former head coach Mike Stoops, the Wildcats let leads escape from them in games against Oregon, Oregon State, Colorado and Utah, to name a few.
Stoops spent many nights scolding players, officials and coaches — basically anyone who was in reach. His players, as he found out leading up to his dismissal last season, did not respond to that type of coaching. Stoops simply couldn’t relate to them.
Head coach Rich Rodriguez has often said he isn’t the hand-holding, Dr. Phil type of coach that coddles his players. He gets on them when they mess up, like making sophomore running back Ka’Deem Carey do extra work after fumbling in a game.
“If you’re not on top of your stuff, he’s going to get on you, tell you you’ve got to get going,” Carey said. “But if you do something good, he’s there to pat you on the back and motivate you to keep you going.
“I respect that as a coach, it makes me want to play for him.”
The Wildcats are no longer playing only for themselves and their pride. They are playing for a man they trust, because of his ability to find the balance between criticism and praise.
The slogan “Hard Edge” is emblazoned above the facemask on every player’s helmet, and the phrase is also painted on the concrete steps that lead to the practice field, as well as on the walls.
Rodriguez has instilled in this team what Stoops never could: true mental toughness, a swagger and resiliency that does not waver, despite losing three straight games prior to its bye-week.
He has made the Wildcats believe they’re winners, and that they belong on the same field as Oregon and USC.
Rodriguez and the Wildcats will be the first to tell you that there is more work to be done, but Arizona fans finally have some progress that they can believe in.
“Honestly, I think it all comes from Coach Rod, and how he prepared us in camp,” receiver Austin Hill said. “We had a lot of hard times. He made us more resilient because of all the yelling we had to go through.
“Now nothing can stop us.”