A man holding a Zia Pueblo clay pot patiently waited until the final 3:20 of the Gildan New Mexico Bowl before triggering an engraving device that would inscribe "NEVADA WOLF PACK 2012" on the winner's trophy.

And why not? The Wolf Pack had a first down at Arizona's 11-yard line, leading 45-35.

That's when Jeff Siembieda, the game's executive director, asked for caution.

"I said, 'Don't put the placard on the trophy yet,'" Siembieda remembered an hour later. "I said, 'This is not over yet, boys.'"

There would be 22 plays and 17 points scored in the final 3:20.

There would be two Arizona touchdowns in 27 seconds.

There would be the school's most compelling comeback since Ortege Jenkins' "Leap by the Lake" that beat Washington 14 years ago, and surely, given the stage and the odds-against factor, one of the five or 10 most captivating victories in Arizona history.

It was a reprieve of such magnitude that it alleviated the pain of losing the Territorial Cup three weeks ago.

Arizona won 49-48, and if you don't think it was unexpected, you should rewind the game clock to 3:20 and check the scene. That's when UA athletic director Greg Byrne stood alone in the end zone, a rare grimace on his customarily happy face, watching as the Wolf Pack kicked an insurance field goal to lead 48-35.

At that moment, as Arizona got the ball back, a million miles from winning a game in which it had been ineffective and undisciplined, injured UA senior receiver Dan Buckner sat alone on the Wildcats' bench, his head down, his career over as surely as his team's season was about to end in a bewildering loss to the Mountain West Conference's fourth-place team.

A few minutes later, Byrne and Buckner embraced one another at midfield, lost in a swarm of celebrating Wildcat fans. Buckner dropped his chin onto Byrne's shoulder and sobbed.

They were the happiest tears of an unpredictable and beguiling football season in which Rich Rodriguez's first Arizona team went 8-5 at a time he had the personnel (and the schedule) to go 5-8, or worse.

"It just doesn't happen very often," Rodriguez said. Very often? How about never? Arizona has never won a game in its Pac-12 (or Pac-10) years by successfully recovering an onside kick in the final moments and then wiping out an opponent's lead.

For 58 minutes, Nevada was the better team. How much better? It often appeared as if the Wildcats defense hadn't practiced for the game.

The Wolf Pack gained 651 yards, which has been surpassed by a UA opponent just three times in 100 years, and snapped 105 plays, the most by an Arizona opponent in history.

Nevada led 21-0 so quickly, and with such authority, being outgained 201 to 27, that, as the game's most surprising hero, sophomore receiver Tyler Slavin, said, "I knew that if we didn't do something fast, it was gonna get ugly."

When it accepted a berth in the off-the-map New Mexico Bowl, Arizona immediately put itself in a pickle. Its charge wasn't so much to beat the Wolf Pack, but rather not to lose. The entire perception of RichRod's first season, and his coaching worthiness, would swing on not losing to Nevada.

The risk was enormous, as was evident on Byrne's unsmiling face with 3:20 remaining. Arizona would have lost all momentum and energy toward the 2013 season and the opening of its $74 million football plant and, with it, the respect that RichRod's team had built during a 7-4 start.

Losing to Nevada, especially in an only-game-in-the-country ESPN telecast, isn't like losing to Boise State. You can get attention for all the wrong reasons.

Arizona's comeback was fascinating for a lot of reasons, but none more than the reality that Nevada had to play as poorly as Arizona played well.

Wolf Pack coach Chris Ault used the word "sick"seven times during his postgame briefing. His pass defense coverage became undisciplined and was strangely out of position in the final two minutes. One marginal pass-interference call had to go in Arizona's favor (Ault was really sick about that). And, on the other side, UA quarterback Matt Scott had to be superb when, for 58 minutes, he had been pedestrian.

Superb? In the final two minutes Scott was 8 for 9 for 83 yards and two touchdowns.

"It's reality," Ault said. "You look at that and you feel … I'm just sick. … I'm just sick for this whole football team. We had an opportunity to win a game and should have."

In a 3-hour-39-minute football game, with 188 plays, you don't win because everything goes your way. Arizona won Saturday because, after Nevada took a 45-28 lead, the best player on the field, quarterback Cody Fajardo, hurt his knee and could no longer run effectively.

Until that moment, Fajardo had run 22 times for 140 yards, and Arizona couldn't figure it out or stop him.

That's when the game subtly began to turn to Arizona's favor. It would be a race against the clock. The rest would be on Scott saving the best two minutes of a five-year career until his last two minutes.

On the final day of Arizona's football season, the Wildcats led Nevada for 19 seconds.

They were the best 19 seconds of the year.