In the end, it was only natural for a Zendejas to win it

2009-11-29T00:00:00Z In the end, it was only natural for a Zendejas to win it Opinion by Greg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
November 29, 2009 12:00 am  • 

TEMPE

Raindrops kept falling on Alex Zendejas' head, or maybe it was hail. It makes a better story that way, doesn't it? Either way, Sun Devil Stadium had turned into a scene like something out of "The Natural."

It was dark, it was dramatic and there was going to be some heartbreak involved.

Zendejas had been standing next to special teams coach Jeff Hammerschmidt, absorbing the moment, welcoming it.

Are you sure? Welcoming it? Game at stake, UA vs. ASU, a harrowing moment fans of both teams will carry with them for the next few decades?

"I've been anxious to get in this position all year," Zendejas said.

Hammerschmidt wasn't so welcoming. He factored in the wind and the elements. He factored in all of the misfortune that had bounced against the Wildcats in Seattle and at Cal and especially against the Oregon Ducks.

"I closed my eyes and everything," Hammerschmidt said, laughing.

Somewhere among the 55,989 at Sun Devil Stadium sat - or rather stood - Max Zendejas, Alex's uncle, the Sun Devil Killer of all Sun Devil Killers.

On the same turf in 1983, Zendejas kicked a 45-yard field goal as time expired to give Arizona a 17-15 win. Two years later, 1985, he kicked three field goals, one of them from 57 yards in an epic fourth-quarter comeback, to beat the Sun Devils 16-13 and knock them out of the Rose Bowl.

A generation later, lightning was about to strike on the same plot of land. Alex Zendejas from 32 yards, the big eraser about to blot from memory a long, difficult afternoon that seemed about to blow up in Mike Stoops' grill.

Of course the kick was good. Of course Arizona won 20-17.

"I told Alex that his family became famous in this stadium," Hammerschmidt said. "Now it was his turn."

The moment Zendejas' kick edged inside of the right goal post much like Max's winner 26 years earlier, none of what had taken place in the previous 3 hours and 21 minutes mattered. Not Arizona's struggle just to gain a few yards (it had 99 total yards in the second half). And not the way Arizona's defense seemed to run short of fuel, gasping, as the Sun Devils, not exactly Points "R" Us, scored two late touchdowns and seemed capable of doing whatever it needed to win in overtime.

Style points don't count in Pac-10 football and especially in the UA-ASU game.

"Oh, man, I don't know how much more of this I can take," said Stoops, a joyful man who didn't for a mini-second pause to imagine the damage that would've been done by losing to what was probably the worst ASU team of the last 10 or 20 or 30 years.

"It's a lot of difference three points will make in your life," he said.

Arizona has won in bizarre, I-can't-make-this-stuff-up form at Sun Devil Stadium in more ways than a Zendejas family field goal. In '87, ASU punter Mike Schuh inexplicably dropped a snap in the final 25 seconds which blew ASU's 24-21 lead and allowed the Wildcats to escape with a tie. And in '95, trailing all day against Jake Plummer, Arizona somehow rallied to win 31-28 when Chuck Osborne forced a fumble and Joe Salave'a picked it up and ran for a touchdown.

On Saturday, punt-blocking Orlando Vargas was Osborne and fumble-recovering Mike Turner was Salave'a.

At 7-4, Arizona can breathe again. Had it lost, at 6-5, going to USC to finish the regular season, it would've been a total blackout in a season that had already included despairing, improbable late-game mess-ups against Washington, Cal and Oregon. But now the USC game is just window dressing and bowl positioning.

Someone asked Stoops if he felt "due" to win one in the same way he had lost three.

"I feel like it's gotta even out," he said. And then he recounted painful, last-minute meltdowns in his first-ever Pac-10 game, against Washington State, and in a 2005 loss in Sun Devil Stadium.

Both Stoops and offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes admitted that the Wildcats were less than whole on Saturday, reeling from the psychological hangover from last week's double-overtime loss to Oregon. That explains some of the inability to put the Sun Devils away after taking a 14-0 lead. The rest can be put on the Sun Devils, a capable defensive team, a club that had enough moxie to fight back when they had almost nothing but pride at stake.

"It felt like a little bit of redemption for us," said Dykes. "We knew it would be a little bit of an ugly game, and because of that some of our plan was to grind it out and grind it out."

As Zendejas lined up to kick the winning field goal, UA defensive coordinator Mark Stoops watched not the kick but an official. He probably wasn't the only one too nervous to watch. Against Oregon, Stoops had done the same thing on a late Arizona pass into the end zone. He hoped to see an official raise two arms, touchdown, victory, and on to the Rose Bowl.

Instead, the Ducks intercepted the pass and won the game.

But in the rain late Saturday afternoon, Stoops looked away and saw only an official raise both arms to signal the winning kick.

"We finally got one," he said. "We finally got one. It's about time."

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