How do you frame a game against an opponent that beat you worse than any team since the Truman administration as a coach?
That’s the issue confronting Arizona football coach Rich Rodriguez and his staff this week, ahead of the team’s Saturday game against mighty Washington State.
The Cougars are 7-1 this season, and still elicit screams from Wildcats fans, a year after their 62-point annihilation of Rodriguez and company.
That 69-7 defeat to the Cougars ripped the scar tissue that stitches together the hearts of Arizona’s small but fiery fan base.
Saturday represents the 380th day since that on-field trauma—when Wildcat faithful forced a new four-letter word into their lexicon—Falk.
Falk, in this case, refers to Washington State’s folk hero of a quarterback, Luke Falk, who torched Rodriguez’s woebegone defense, to the tune of 311 yards and four touchdowns.
How the worm turns
Fast-forward a year and change and you’ll see a picture that seemed utterly impossible at season’s start.
The Wildcats—yes, the very same bunch that was picked dead last in the Pac-12 Conference by my media brethren (yours not included)—enter with a 5-2 record, on a three-game winning streak.
Many among us would jump at the chance to label Saturday’s clash of the (unexpected) titans as a ‘revenge’ game, with a bloodthirsty Wildcats squad ready to slay the Cougars in front of what should be a packed peanut gallery.
Images of great Roman gladiators may flash across your cranium, with the scorned home crowd howling like a pack of emaciated wolves.
Well, don’t expect Rodriguez himself (or any of his players) to join in the fray, at least given his comments in Monday’s press conference.
“I talked about it, and I told the guys that somebody’s going to use the word ‘revenge’,” Rodriguez said. “And I said that that word’s used way too much. It’s like you’re defending your family or something like that—you got embarrassed in a football game.”
Revenge game or not, the synopsis of the story here is that Arizona is a game away from bowl eligibility, in a year where Rodriguez’s very livelihood was staked to such a feat.
Such a mind-boggling sea change wouldn’t be possible without a gift from the football gods—with the gift in this case being a gazelle-like freak of nature from Inglewood, California by the name of Khalil Tate.
Tate, who I’ve already gushed about, is reason enough to scrape together enough pocket change to find a way into the musty confines of Arizona Stadium.
The other reason, shockingly enough, is that this year’s team has a hell of a roster, and faces its biggest (and best) home opponent of the year.
The game, which kicks off at 6:30 p.m., is part one of a two-week gauntlet for Tate, Rodriguez and the family band, before heading to the L.A. Coliseum for a game against a decimated USC Trojans team.
Rodriguez knows his team will be fired up, whether the fine folks of the Old Pueblo choose to watch or not.
He also knows how much of a difference a packed house can make, given the tall task of beating the vaunted Cougars.
“I think that redemption is probably a better word than revenge, but there’s no question that it’s embarrassing; terrible — every bad adjective that you can have about it,” Rodriguez said of last year’s debacle. “That was a long time ago, this is a completely different team. But we certainly have a lot to prove against those guys, that’s for sure.”
It’s not quite Carthage and sowing the land with salt, but it’s salty language nonetheless.