The Arizona Wildcats were leading by 30 points, their backups on the field, when linebackers Paul Vassallo and Derek Earls found each other on the sideline.

Vassallo pointed to the scoreboard.

"Look at that," Vassallo said.

It's hard to believe, isn't it? Bottled up by a cursed season and a sudden coaching change, the UA found a seam of success Thursday and ran to daylight. Juron Criner caught three touchdown passes and the Wildcats' defense forced a pair of turnovers on the way to a 48-12 win over the hapless Bruins at Arizona Stadium. The win was Arizona's first over a Division I-A team in 355 days, its first in the new Pac-12 Conference, and the first of interim head coach Tim Kish's career. The defensive coordinator was promoted 11 days ago, after Mike Stoops was fired midway through his eighth season.

Quarterback Nick Foles called it "a meaningful win because of everything that's gone on here."

"Going out here, against all odds, and playing a good game?" he said. "It was a good one."

The Wildcats (2-5, 1-4) took the lead with a nationally televised flourish, scoring twice in the first 7 minutes 22 seconds to take a 14-point lead and tacking on four second-quarter touchdowns in front of 46,565 fans. They blitzed more frequently, leading to season-highs in sacks and fumble recoveries. Kish even dusted off the UA's old double-eagle flex front, a throwback to match the Wildcats' white helmets and navy jerseys.

It worked: Arizona limited UCLA to season lows in rushing yards (37) and points (12). Trailing, the Bruins (3-4, 2-2) abandoned their "Pistol" running game for a chuck-and-duck attack that only made Arizona stronger. Quarterback Kevin Prince completed 17 of 35 passes for 286 yards and a touchdown, but UCLA's offense was scoreless after the first quarter.

Foles played better, completing 26 of 39 attempts for 291 yards and three touchdowns, all to Criner. Criner finished with 10 catches for 101 yards, his best performance since a Week 1 win over Northern Arizona.

But it was more than just about performance. The Wildcats took direction from Kish, a glass-half-full football lifer. The interim coach stressed fun during the last two weeks of practice, and brought in guests - Arizona basketball coach Sean Miller and former NBA coach John Lucas - to talk about overcoming adversity. Kish stayed constantly on message.

"We tuned in to what he was saying," Criner said, "and we took it to heart."

Even when things got weird, Kish's voice - calm and reassuring - resonated.

The UA was leading 42-7 with 4 seconds remaining in the first half when a streaker dressed as a referee tried to enter the Bruins' huddle. When he couldn't, the man dashed down the middle of the field, ripping off his clothes, before being tackled by authorities.

At the exact same moment, players incited a bench-clearing brawl that took 2 uncomfortable minutes to settle. Arizona's Shaquille Richardson and UCLA's Taylor Embree were ejected once order was restored, and the Wildcats - eventually - stormed into the locker room with a 35-point lead. Kish spent the entire halftime break talking about discipline, with a twist.

"Sometimes incidents like this happen during lopsided games," he said. "I told the team that if you learn from your mistakes and don't repeat them, you'll be successful."

On Thursday night, nearly ever Wildcat was.

John Bonano, the newly minted kicker, made it 45-7 with a 41-yard field goal in the third quarter, and tacked on a 22-yarder in the fourth. Bonano was perfect on the night, connecting on all eight of his PATs and field goals.

Arizona entered the game ranked 119th nationally in rushing offense and dead last - 120th - in sacks. The UA rushed for 254 yards and sacked the quarterback twice anyway.

The Wildcats hadn't led since Week 1 before Thursday, when Foles hit Criner just 2:17 into the first quarter. Then they didn't trail.

Yes, Thursday was a good time to celebrate - and congratulate.

Kish was conducting his postgame interview on the field when safety Robert Golden snuck up from behind him, wound up and - whack! - popped him right on the backside.

On Thursday, there was no better feeling.

"We always have fun," Criner said. "Once you're winning, you stick with the fun."

Up next

• What: Arizona at Washington

• When: 7:30 p.m., Oct. 29