• This story is courtesy of the Arizona Daily Wildcat
A little over a year ago, Rich Rodriguez arrived for the first time in Tucson as the new head coach of the Arizona football program. The Wildcats were in the midst of a 4-8 season, and weren’t heading to a bowl for the first time since 2007.
Before talking about anything else, Rodriguez sat down with his new players and discussed the pain and disappointment they felt sitting at home while 70 other teams played in a bowl game.
“If you’re not one of ‘em, it makes it for a long December,” Rodriguez said. “I know, I’ve been there.”
Now jump ahead to Saturday. After the Wildcats’ 56-31 thumping of a terrible Colorado team, the massive disappointment the players felt last season is wiped clean — Arizona is bowl eligible and should be playing this holiday season, even if they somehow collapse in the final two games the season.
“It feels great,” senior receiver Dan Buckner said. “I’m nearing the end of my college career and going into (Saturday) we had three games for sure. And to get that extra one hopefully — if they pick us to go a bowl game — it feels good to continue your college career. It’s the best time of your life, I love these guys.”
Buckner said when Rodriguez first talked with the team, he brought up the fact that he wasn’t there to rebuild. The seniors on the team, like Buckner, couldn’t wait for two or three years down the road.
“He wanted to make an impact now,” Buckner said. “I think we’ve fell short a couple times this year but overall I think we’ve done more than people outside expected us to do. But we’ve always expected to win games, we don’t play to lose.”
As Buckner pointed out, this team wasn’t supposed to reach six wins. In all honesty, five wins seemed a little optimistic and, if anything, the road to this point has proven tougher than expected. Every single team Arizona has played, other than FCS South Carolina State and Colorado, has been ranked at one point or another and yet the Wildcats were able to go 4-4 against that stiff competition.
Rodriguez doesn’t exactly have a track record for starting fast — he won just three games in his first years coaching at West Virginia and Michigan. Throw in the fact that Arizona lost three players to the NFL draft from a four-win team, and this season had failure written all over it.
Instead they pulled out a bowl berth, and with two winnable games left, Arizona could, against all odds, finish with a winning record.
“We’re grateful to be in a position that we in, to be able to go to a bowl,” right tackle Fabbians Ebbele said. “It didn’t feel good sitting at home last year just watching.”
The way the Wildcats reached this point wasn’t ideal; they more or less fell into it. After the 66-10 humiliation a week ago against UCLA, the hopes of winning the Pac-12 South immediately disappeared.
The career day from running back Ka’Deem Carey Saturday made the Colorado game more special than it should have been — he rushed for a conference-record 366 yards and scored a school-record five touchdowns. In all reality, the Wildcats qualified by default against the worst team in a power conference.
The victory wasn’t exactly clean, either. The Wildcats gave up 31 points to Colorado, the second most the Buffs have scored all season and almost double their season average of 16 points per game.
Colorado racked up 437 total yards, which is impressive considering its offense is ranked 116th in the nation — out of 120 teams. The Wildcats backed into bowl eligibility, but just reaching the milestone is all that matters.
“It’s big for me,” ‘spur’ safety Tra’Mayne Bondurant said. “I’ve never been to one so it’s another experience I’ll always cherish. I’m just happy for the team and all the seniors and they get to go out and get a bowl game and that’s the most important part.”
This season is, without a doubt, Rodriguez’s most successful start at a new program. Making a bowl is just the icing on the cake for quarterback Matt Scott and the rest of the seniors.
The question now isn’t if they’ll make a bowl, but which one.
“[The] Rose Bowl hopefully,” Bondurant joked.
That’s not going to happen. But a trip to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl or the MAACO Las Vegas Bowl isn’t a bad consolation prize.