Austin Hill smile

When you convert onside kicks this guy makes game-winning catches. Photo by Wildcat Universe

It was an improbable-and-leaning-toward-impossible comeback!

And that’s what we said about the New Mexico Bowl two seasons ago. Rich Rodriguez and the Arizona Wildcats just did it again, and Sonny DykesCal Bears were the victims.

After the first comeback it was easy to call it a fluke. Luck. Chance. But when the magic happens a second time you start to wonder if the guy in the ball cap and headset might be some sort of wizard.

Let’s take a closer look at one of the tricks up RichRod’s sleeve.

The 2012 game in Albuquerque against Nevada was supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime miracle. Down 13 with two minutes left, touchdown / onside kick / touchdown, win by one.

Seventeen games later, here we are again. Only this time it went touchdown / touchdown / touchdown / onside kick / touchdown / Hail Mary / touchdown / win.

Rodriguez has only been in Tucson for 20 wins which means 10% of his victories have been ridiculous comebacks. In other words, for every left-handed person out there there’s a RichRod miracle.

Everyone is talking about the “Hill Mary” and rightfully so. But don’t overlook the other That never happens! play that reduced the deficit enough so the Cats could attempt the Hail Mary.

I’m talking about the onside kick. Click here to watch it but keep the second tab open on your browser for future reference.

There is no strategy that will make an onside kick statistically probable when the receiving team knows it’s coming. But what if you can improve your odds even a little bit?

You’ll notice Arizona didn’t just try a conventional kick where you line up all 10 guys on one side of the field and smash into the opponent like a scene from the 300 movie. The UA used two kickers so the ball could go in either direction. The first player ran up and faked a kick to the left then the second kicker sent the ball bounding to the right.

At first glance it seems like a waste of a player. Why put an extra kicker out there when you could use another blocker / tackler / runner to try and recover the ball?

The key is seeing how Cal reacts. There were five Wildcats lined up to the left of the kickers and four to the right. The Bears responded by putting six players on the “strong side,” in a typical formation with three blockers in front and three receivers in back ready to catch the big hop.

Since Cal also put a player back deep (you see him enter the screen from the far left at the end of the clip) there were just four Bears remaining on Arizona’s right. Cal had a six-to-five player advantage on the left but it was four-on-four to the right. The Cats kicked to the right.

After the Cal penalty (where the Bear player oddly tried to bat / throw the ball out of bounds instead of catching it) the UA lined up the same way. Cal didn’t adjust its formation and the ball was kicked to the right again and Tra’Mayne Bondurant made the play to set up the touchdown (before the missed field and the touchdown).

I guarantee if Cal came out with five guys on either side of the field the ball would’ve gone to the left where Arizona would have been facing five-on-five instead of four-on-five on the other side. Rodriguez’s entire offensive philosophy is built on creating and exploiting this kind of mismatch.

A couple weeks ago the Star’s Daniel Berk linked to a video of Rodriguez conducting a clinic on his run game strategy. Principle number one is “Numbers,” which simply means counting the defenders near the line of scrimmage and only running the ball if you’ve got enough guys to block them all.

RichRod did the exact same thing with the onside kick against Cal. He read the defense and kicked to the side of the field where the numbers were most favorable.

It was the Wildcats’ third successful onside kick since Rodriguez arrived in Tucson, and each one employed a different strategy. You may recall the “drag bunt” kick in RichRod’s very first UA game when John Bonano surprised Toledo by tapping the ball ahead to himself. The New Mexico Bowl kick was designed to bounce off a blocker in the front row. Then there was the double-kicker masterpiece that played a big part in the greatest comeback in school history.

Leave it to the inventor of the zone read to run an option play on a kickoff.

– – – – –