BERKELEY, Calif. – When the Arizona Wildcats and Cal Golden Bears get together, something crazy is bound to happen.
Nothing can top the “Hill Mary” game in 2014. But what took place Saturday night came awfully close.
In a game featuring wild swings, wacky plays, multiple ejections, frequent flags, key injuries, two overtime sessions and one go-for-broke call, Arizona somehow found a way to win.
Freshman linebacker Colin Schooler’s pass breakup in the back of the end zone on a two-point conversion attempt in double overtime preserved the Wildcats’ 45-44 victory over the Golden Bears.
Arizona held on despite losing a safety and a tailback to targeting fouls, losing two more starters to injuries and allowing Cal to convert 13 of 19 third downs. The Wildcats needed to make one play in the end, and they did it.
“We’ve had some crazy games against Cal,” UA coach Rich Rodriguez said. “I had a feeling this was going to be another one, this being their homecoming and two teams that are trying to get some respect and get noticed a little bit.
“There was a lot of different things going on tonight when you talk about guys going down, going into overtime. But the difference at the end just came down to making plays.”
One play decided it. Cal coach Justin Wilcox elected to go for two after Vic Enwere’s 1-yard touchdown run brought the Bears within a point.
Ross Bowers tried to hit Jordan Duncan in the back of the end zone, but Schooler got in the way of the pass. The announced crowd of 37,525 at California Memorial Stadium was stunned. The elated Wildcats stormed the south end zone.
“Obviously, it was win or lose for us,” Schooler said. “It was a man-on-man situation. Fortunately, he didn’t come down with the ball.”
Some of the Wildcats on the sideline barely could stand to watch. Tailback Zach Green said he was staring at his helmet before peeking up at the last second. Tight end Bryce Wolma was watching the scoreboard before turning to see how the last play unfolded.
“We live for situations like that,” Wolma said.
Wilcox called timeout before the final play, giving both teams a chance to get organized. Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate infiltrated the defensive huddle to pump up his teammates. The last person he talked to was Schooler. Tate’s advice: “Make a play.”
“Our defense has showed how much heart we have,” said Schooler, who had a team- and career-high 15 tackles.
“We took it kind of personally when they went for two when they didn’t need to. Luckily, they didn’t get it.”
There was actually a moment of hesitation before the celebration. Arizona had been whistled for eight penalties up to that point. The Wildcats weren’t sure if another was coming.
“First I looked to see if there were any penalties,” Schooler said. “Once I saw that there was no laundry on the field, I was celebrating with my teammates.”
Arizona won its third game in a row to improve to 5-2, 3-1 in the Pac-12. The Wildcats are 3-0 on the road and one win from bowl eligibility after going 3-9 last season.
“It wasn’t a pretty win, but we got the W,” senior safety Dane Cruikshank said. “We never give up on each other. We came together. We told each other we’re going to fight to the end.
“The sky is the limit for this young team.”
The Wildcats won despite losing tailbacks Nick Wilson (ankle injury) and J.J. Taylor (targeting ejection). They won despite Cal (4-4, 1-4) doing a better job of bottling up Tate than either of Arizona’s previous two opponents
The sophomore quarterback still made plenty of plays. He accounted for half of Arizona’s six touchdowns, and the attention Cal paid to him opened up creases for the others.
Tate finished with 137 rushing yards – his lowest total in the past three games – and 166 passing yards. His 76-yard rushing touchdown in the first quarter was a career long, as was his 56-yard TD pass to Shun Brown in the second.
Tate didn’t care about any numbers after the game besides the ones on the scoreboard.
“My job is to win,” Tate said, “to lead the team to victory. As long as we got the W, I’m satisfied.”
Tate’s scrambling 22-yard touchdown pass to Wolma in the second overtime turned out to be the winning score. Tate said Wolma was the last option on the play. Tate found him anyway at the 5-yard line, and Wolma absorbed a big hit as a he crossed the goal line.
The Wildcats initially stopped Enwere on fourth-and-goal, but he powered through three tacklers to score. Then Wilcox made his stand. Teams have to go for two starting in the third overtime anyway. He guaranteed that Tate wouldn’t get the ball again.
“I love our team, how they compete,” Wilcox said. “We didn’t play well enough, especially on defense, to win the game today. We had our opportunities and battled back.
“At the end of it there, that was our best chance to win. You can dispute it, but I would do it again.”
Tate was the last Wildcat to leave the interview room. He hugged Rodriguez’s wife, Rita, on the way out.
Tate wasn’t yet a Wildcat when the Hill Mary game happened in ’14. But he knew of its legend.
“I was aware of that game,” Tate said. “It made it seem like something Cal and Arizona were destined to do.”