At the moment of the final snap, with four seconds on the clock and 47 yards from heaven, Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez stood next to student assistant David Nicasio. Both put their hands together, touching their chins, as if in prayer.
Someone snapped a photograph and had it on twitter in an instant.
If they were praying, their prayer was answered.
In the end, UA punter Drew Riggleman turned sommersaults at midfield. Rodriguez broke the NCAA record for hugging people.
More than 20,000 people had left Arizona Stadium since Arizona trailed 31-13, but a few minutes before 11 p.m., it seemed like 50,000 had rushed the field to celebrate the most improbable, impossible football victory in school history.
Forget football. It was surely the most unlikely victory in any sport at Arizona, in 100 years.
Arizona won 49-45 on a play that will forever become partners with the old Doug Flutie, Hail Mary, Boston College victory over Miami 30 years ago.
When Austin Hill caught the 21st century version of a football miracle, a 47-yard pass from Anu Solomon in a sea of Cal jerseys, it was part chaos, part Hollywood, part legend.
“I dont think I’ve won one on a Hail Mary. I’m going to enjoy this one,” Rodriguez said.
If you didn’t see it, you wouldn’t believe it. Arizona gained 420 yards of total offense in the second half. Is that a world record?
SportsCenter will replay the finish until Christmas.
Even at the end, after almost four hours, it was all about the beginning.
The first man to run on the field Saturday night was Tra’Mayne Bondurant, an Arizona safety-linebacker who had been suspended in training camp and didn’t work his way into the lineup until Game 4.
Bondurant sprinted onto the field ahead of all other Wildcats, amid fireworks and a siren. When all seemed lost Saturday, Bondurant intercepted a pass that led to a rallying touchdown, and then recovered an onside kick that led to another.
It was a replay of Arizona’s Gildan New Mexico Bowl comeback over Nevada, but this one was more significant, and more of the pinch-me-it-can’t-be-true variety.
It was in that same New Mexico game that Austin Hill emerged as a star-level player. On Saturday he was part of a football fairy tale.
From the beginning, this didn’t appear to be Arizona’s night.
It was a pair of missed tackles and a blown pass coverage. Simple stuff. Three plays. Two touchdowns.
Cal gained 155 yards and led 14-0 before the band was seated.
Arizona was in full retreat. It had given up so much ground you would think it would never catch up.
What didn’t go wrong? Cal gained nearly 600 yards. Yes, Cal. The Bears went 1-11 last year.
Initially, it seemed that it came down to a tipped pass, of all things, on a two-point conversion attempt after both teams were running on empty, and half of the crowd had gone home. Cal tipped it.
The drama seemed to end just as it began. Cal had won 45-43, hadn’t it? It was going to be a scar that the Wildcats would carry all season.
Almost inevitably, Solomon played like a freshman. It was going to happen. Suitably scouted and matched against Pac-12 size, speed and coaching for the first time, it was clear Solomon was no longer back in high school playing against Pahrump Valley.
It was contagious. The body language on Arizona’s sideline was as if a fuse had blown, and no one could re-flip the switch. Rodriguez was surely burning inside, but his demeanor belied any urgency.
You kept waiting for him to get in someone’s face, to light someone up. He came off as the manager of the Minnesota Twins in a Grapefruit League game against some Triple-A prospects.
We’ll get ’em tomorrow, boys.
How funny that seems now.
Rodriguez was patient. His team was clutch. It all came together in an unimaginable finish.
A lot of football teams come out flat, but few stay flat for 50 minutes, especially at home. Few take a punch in the snoot the way Arizona took a punch in the snoot Saturday night and don’t seem eager to fight back.
Until the final four seconds, it was the least exciting 45-43 game ever. Yawn. There were 12,000 empty seats. If it had been boxing, the referee would have stopped it because no one in the white uni’s seemed to care until the fourth quarter.
But if you play to the final whistle, you never know.
Cal was supposed to be one of the two light touches on the remaining schedule, Cal and Colorado, and almost everyone at the stadium on Saturday expected to see the Bad News Bears.
Instead, they got the Smokin’ Hot Bears.
Some of the misplays that took place Saturday night weren’t fully surprising. While going 3-0 against an alphabet soup list of preconference creampuffs, the Wildcats didn’t know what it was to play against a defense that could stack the box and stop freshman Nick Wilson from averaging 7 yards a carry.
Arizona’s defense had not been tested by a quarterback like Jared Goff, one with an NFL arm and NFL size. It had not been probed by fast and skilled receivers like Cal deploys. A missed tackle didn’t have serious consequences against UTSA and UNLV, but against the Bears it resulted in a 44-yard touchdown on the game’s first possession.
Cal didn’t shock Arizona’s defensive staff with a revolutionary offense. Sonny Dykes uses essentially the same playbook now that he diagrammed while he was Arizona’s offensive coordinator, calling passes from Nick Foles to receivers Juron Criner and David Douglas.
The core of this Cal defense ranked No. 122 of 123 FBS teams last year. On Saturday, they befuddled Solomon, shut down Wilson and when they absolutely had to make a stand inside the 12 yard line — twice in the first half — they didn’t yield a point.
But before the clock could strike 12, the Bears melted, blowing a game that could change the course of Dykes’ coaching career or, at least, the Bears’ season.
And at the same time, it kept Arizona unbeaten and unbelievable.