Soon after Arizona’s 31-13 loss to then-No. 16 Washington on Sept. 28, rumors began to spread of a depressed B.J. Denker hanging around campus and at local restaurants alone.
The senior quarterback completed just 14 of his 35 pass attempts against the Huskies and threw two interceptions. The senior had worked relentlessly over the past three years to finally reach the spot he was in, but it looked like the former junior college transfer was beginning to feel the pressure of being a starting NCAA quarterback, and the 2013 season seemed it was heading in a bad direction.
But Denker returned to the field the next day of practice with a different mindset: a humble but hungry one.
“I went to the movie theaters one time to clear my head,” Denker said. “Yeah, I would lay in bed at night and sometimes [the negativity and pressure] hurt a little bit, but that’s in the past.
“I told myself, ‘If I play well, then this doesn’t matter anymore.’”
Arizona lost its next game, on the road at USC. However, in that loss, Denker showed an improved performance even against one of the best defenses in the country.
Since the Oct. 10 loss to the Trojans, the Wildcats have won three games in a row. Denker has increased his completion percentage and accounted for eight of the 13 Arizona touchdowns in those wins.
Denker has rallied his troops and flipped the switch, turning what looked to be a hopeful team into a contending one.
With only four games remaining and Arizona tied with USC and UCLA, sitting just one game behind rival ASU in the Pac-12 South standings, Saturday’s nationally televised home game against the No. 19 Bruins will be a showcase for the entire team.
“This is a statement game,” said running back Ka’Deem Carey. “We’re trying to make that championship, [and] this is the game that stands in front.”
While the losses to Washington and USC have made this final home stretch difficult for the Wildcats, head coach Rich Rodriguez said he knows they still have a realistic shot.
“You can say they’re all the same, but playing a ranked team that you’re trying to compete with for a division title makes the game bigger,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez has claimed to pay less attention to the standings than the fans do, which may be true. But the head coach knows that his team ends the season against the Sun Devils, who are first place in the Pac-12 South. All the Wildcats need to do is remain one game behind ASU until they play each other in their Nov. 30 matchup.
Arizona controls its own destiny, so Rodriguez is making sure his players are focused — not just on the game at hand, but on the next practice, day and snap ahead.
As for Denker, Rodriguez said he doesn’t expect him to be alone again, because he’s built up the momentum to make a statement Saturday night.
“The more you win, the more is at stake,” Rodriguez said. “You have to stay humble, and you have to stay hungry. I’ll say that and preach that to the team.”
—Follow Luke Della @LukeDella