The casual observer would have declared last Saturday’s Arizona-Cal football game to be uglier than Steve Buscemi’s Less-Attractive Brother. But to the members of the Wildcat football program and all of their die-hard fans, it was a work of art. It was the Mona Lisa sitting near Monet’s Water Lilies underneath The Starry Night.
With Marvin Gaye playing in the background.
Arizona won while scoring a feeble 10 points and did so in front of the smallest crowd at Arizona Stadium in nearly four decades. But there are only two words in that sentence that matter: Arizona won.
The Wildcats were mired in a 20-game losing streak stretched across three miserable seasons. Just this year, they had had games that could have gone their way with a break or two (BYU, Oregon) and games in which they led going into the fourth quarter (Washington, NAU). But just as winning teams figure out a way to win, teams that are losing have to figure out a way to stop losing.
And that’s what Arizona did, if ever so barely. They beat a mediocre Cal team that was missing several of its starters and did so under a blazing hot (for November in Tucson) sun. But they did it.
It’s not like they didn’t make it interesting along the way. After a dreadfully dull (and scoreless) first half, in which the Cats twice shot themselves in the foot with tipped-ball interceptions, they finally kicked a field goal to take a three-point lead in the third quarter. I remember thinking “OK, just 20 more minutes of defense and the streak is gone!”
But then Cal, which had been incredibly bad on offense all day long, drove right down the field and kicked a tying field goal. And there it stayed until only a couple minutes remained in the game.
With the exception of that one aforementioned long drive, Cal’s offense had been locked down by a spirited, fly-to-the-ball Wildcat defense. The Bears would end the day with a stunningly paltry 122 yards of total offense and a miniscule 2.2 yards per play. Speaking of plays, Cal would run only 55 the entire day, compared to 82 plays by Arizona.
With the teams trading punt after punt, Arizona’s superiority in that area came to light. (In a tight game like that, punting can make a huge difference.) Cat punter Kyle Ostendorp had four punts downed inside the Cal 20-yard line, while only one punt went into the end zone for a touchback. Perhaps his best punt of the day came midway through the final quarter with the game still tied. His sky-high punt was downed around the one-yard line, forcing Cal to operate out of its own end zone.
I seriously envisioned the Cats getting a sack of the QB in the end zone for a safety and then hanging on for a 5-3 victory. They almost did exactly that, just missing a sack. But then a ref pulled a bizarre penalty out of his bu—er, back pocket, penalizing Arizona 15 yards because an official ran into a Wildcat player standing on the sidelines. Yes, that is a penalty because the refs need freedom of movement along the sidelines while watching the dance between receivers and defensive backs. But that call at that time seemed too petty to be true. (Surely, a warning would have sufficed.)
Suddenly, Cal was out of the end zone and breathing again. Another 15-yard penalty for a personal foul had Cal set up at its own 30-yard line. But the Wildcat defense stiffened yet again and forced another punt, which Arizona receiver Stanley Berryhill returned 25 yards.
After the big return, the Cat offense took over. A nine-yard run (by Berryhill on a sweep), a 19-yard pass completion, then a 10-yard run. The Cats were set up to kick the game-winning field goal but then Michael Wiley killed the suspense by running up the middle for a 10-yard touchdown run with 2:17 left. The stout Cat defense did it one mo’ time and the losing streak evaporated into the 95-degree heat.
As soon as the horn sounded, many of the students (who numbered in the hundreds, not thousands) poured onto the field. Usually, the conference frowns upon such behavior (for safety reasons), but they’ll probably look at film of this one and say, “Aw heck, why not?”
Being a coach myself, I know that winning covers up a lot of ugliness and hurt feelings. It can’t have been easy to keep this team going after the blown opportunities and the historic loss to NAU, but the coaches and the players kept things together, and good for them. In strict numbers, this team will go down as one of the all-time worst in Arizona history. But for one brief, shining moment…
EXTRA POINTS: With one notable exception, it was not a good Friday night for Northwest high-school football teams… Ironwood Ridge continued its late-season surge with a 71-0 shellacking of Nogales… After stumbling to a 2-4 record six games into the 10-game season, the Nighthawks have won three straight and can clinch a spot in the state playoffs with a win at Marana next week… Marana had been ranked as high as #10 in the AIA Power Points and had been hoping to win enough games down the stretch to guarantee them a home game in the state tourney. But after suffering a 42-12 loss to Cienega on Friday, Marana may face a must-win situation in the final game of the regular season, a home game with surging Ironwood Ridge… Amphi had been riding high after a 4-1 start to its season, but an ankle injury to Southern Arizona’s leading rusher, Kiko Trejo, derailed the Panthers’ season. They lost their third straight game on Friday, dropping their record to 4-4… Marana Mountain View lost at Salpointe… And Pusch Ridge, just two weeks after throttling Thatcher, 41-14, in a regular-season matchup, lost to the same Eagles team in the first round of the state playoffs…