Two weeks ago, I watched as my alma mater, Missouri, suffered what felt like an inexplicable home loss to Indiana. Really, it was quite easy to explain. A two-touchdown favorite, the Tigers were disastrous on offense early, marred by drops, false starts, blocking struggles, and the occasional poor pass. The Tigers figured things out offensively, scoring twice in the fourth quarter. But a defense that had held its own faltered; Indiana went 75-yards in a two-minute drill and stole a win, 31-27.
Granted, Oregon is better than Missouri, and Arizona is better than Indiana. But Thursday night, the home-team Ducks, national title contenders and owners of one of the season's most impressive wins (the eventually easy home win over an excellent Michigan State squad), suffered a version of the same affliction, 31-24. Early offensive struggles set up late defensive letdowns.
As fans, we frequently and willfully ignore a complicated lesson: it's not just about our team. The other team has great athletes and well-paid, talented (in most cases) coaches, too. And as Oregon was working to fix its first-half issues, Arizona gave the Ducks a completely different set of problems in the second half.
Oregon's first drive ended when Byron Marshall dropped a fourth-and-3 pass within scoring range. The Ducks' second drive ended in part because of a second-and-8 pass that hit both of Dwayne Stanford's hands (though not at the same time) and then the ground. Their fifth drive ended when Darren Carrington narrowly missed a lovely, diving third-down catch.
The third drive ended because the offensive line committed a false start on second-and-6, then got quarterback Marcus Mariota knocked down behind the line twice. The sixth drive (aided by an incorrect pass interference penalty on fourth down) ended when Dan Pettinato blindsided Mariota and caused a fumble.
Oregon's offense was a self-destructive disaster in the first half, with ill-timed penalties and missed blocks and drops. But the Ducks still led, 7-3, at halftime because the defense had stood its ground against Rich Rodriguez's offense and the turnover gods had smiled. In theory, Oregon was in position to survive, as long as it shored up its silly offensive mistakes.
The Ducks scored on three of their first four second-half drives. The young, injury-plagued line still wasn't fantastic (first-down rushing success rate: a woeful 32 percent), but it was better.
But Arizona's offense also got better. The Wildcats scored on four of their first five drives, opening the Ducks' defense up by having running backs flare, wheel, drift, and turn into receiving threats. Terris Jones-Grigsby and Nick Wilson combined for four catches, 120 yards, and a touchdown in the second half, and this added feature opened up rushing lanes between the tackles. Arizona took the lead with three minutes left, Scooby Wright III muscled the ball out of Mariota's hands on a late sack, and that was that. The same team that needed a Hail Mary to survive California at home beat Oregon on the road 12 days later.
Coaching a football game is playing chess with pieces that have minds of their own. A bishop might fall down. A knight might move to the wrong space. A pawn might spontaneously combust. An official might decide that your rook celebrated a bit after taking that opponent's pawn. Plus, your opponent's queen might be bigger, stronger, and faster than your own.
Okay, so we're torturing this analogy. Still, winning football games requires you to both get your own house in order and keep an eye on your neighbor. For the second straight year, Arizona's Rodriguez did it better than Oregon's Mark Helfrich.
The upset's impact
After the Wildcats won in a blowout last season, the Ducks have themselves another nemesis.
Last year, I interviewed Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne for a potential chapter in my book, "Study Hall," that didn't end up coming to fruition. I wanted to talk to him about the hiring process and the culture required for a hire to succeed.
A couple of years after leaving Michigan as a coaching laughingstock, Rodriguez was in the process of proving that he was still a very good coach. In early 2012, former WVU defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel had followed him to Arizona, and then four-star Las Vegas quarterback Anu Solomon signed. His Wildcats went 8-5 and would go 8-5 again. He was putting the pieces together for a program reminiscent of the great one he built at West Virginia.
Byrne hired Dan Mullen at Mississippi State, then came to Arizona and landed Rodriguez. If 50 percent of your hires are good, you're a hell of an athletic director, and Byrne's two-for-two in football.
"I knew Rich," Byrne told me. "We weren't fishing buddies, but we knew each other. When we decided to change coaches mid-year, the day after we announced we were going in a different direction, I was talking to Rich. That went so well that I flew to Detroit, and we spent an afternoon and part of an evening together.
"So much of what drives me is fit. Who is the best available candidate that you think will fit within your department and give you the best opportunity to succeed in all areas of your program -- academically, athletically, and socially?"
A search is not typically as easy at it was for Byrne in fall 2011.
"Once the time comes where you need to begin a process of hiring a coach, both times I've hired football coaches, and then when I hired a new baseball coach at Mississippi State, within 24 hours of starting a search, you probably have a list of 100 candidates. And then you're vetting them in the next 24 hours, and you get down to a working group of more like 10. And then you really start digging deeper and trying to understand who are really the ones with genuine potential.
"It's not one-size-fits-all. You look at your resources, your situation, and where you perceive the need to have the biggest impact on your program. I knew at MSU, we needed to get a lot better offensively. We were 118th out of 119 over five years in terms of total offense. I was leaning heavily toward the offensive side. During that search, I talked to other sitting head coaches, talked to a coach or two who weren't coaching that year, and talked to coordinators as well."
Whether or not he was looking specifically for an offensive guy at Arizona, he found one. And with a redshirt freshman quarterback (Solomon), a freshman difference-maker at running back (Nick Wilson, who has 574 yards through five games), a sophomore leading receiver (Cayleb Jones), a trio of shop-wrecking sophomore linebackers (Scooby Wright III, Derrick Turituri, and Cody Ippolito), an active redshirt freshman cornerback (Jarvis McCall Jr.), and well-placed senior leaders on the lines and in the secondary, Rodriguez is once again looking like a hell of a head coach. He is 21-10 at Arizona, and his 2014 Wildcats are 5-0.
Indiana's upset win over Missouri was sandwiched by an upset loss to Bowling Green and an extraordinary egg-laying of a blowout home loss to Maryland. Arizona is still a team that needed late heroics to beat UTSA and Cal and will probably either slip up a couple of times before the year is out. But Rodriguez is succeeding as well as or better than anybody expected him to. He's also becoming the poster boy for how much culture and external factors can impact a program.
"Rich had his back against the wall the second he got [to Michigan in 2008]," Byrne told me.
It may be difficult to believe that Arizona upset Oregon last night, but it probably isn't too hard to believe that right about now.