They poured out from the stands, delirious from the improbable outcome they’d just seen.
Arizona students stormed the field past security, congratulating any Wildcat they could grab. Bliss on caffeine.
Only it wasn’t earlier this year, after Arizona’s Hail Mary win over Cal, but last year, after the Wildcats’ unlikely 42-16 thrashing of No. 5 Oregon. If the UA’s last-second heave two Saturdays ago was like a balloon inflating for three hours then popping in an instant, the team’s beat-down of Oregon was thousands of balloons popping quickly and often.
In the end, the result was the same: Wildcat players walking off the field in a wave of adoration.
As the UA prepares to play at No. 2 Oregon on Thursday, a half-dozen players and coaches take a look back at last November’s wild Saturday against the Ducks.
Giving Oregon good field position is giving a cheetah a head start in a foot race. When Ducks returner Troy Hill took the opening kickoff from Jake Smith back 40 yards to the UA 45-yard line, already past midfield before one play was called, you could sense the sweat beginning to form on UA defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel’s forehead.
Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota had thrown one interception since Week 6 of the previous season, and that was in Week 11 in 2012. He entered the game at Arizona absolutely flawless for the year, with 25 touchdowns and zero interceptions through 10 weeks. The first three seconds of the first play could not have been more perfect. Mariota had a wide-open Bralon Addison near the left sideline, and the ball was pretty, and all Addison had to do was snag it and run for a first down.
Only, he forgot to snag it.
The ball bounced off his hands within range of a diving Shaquille Richardson, and the UA cornerback somehow tipped it back into the field of play into the arms of a stunned Scooby Wright.
The crowd reacted as if it saw magic.
Arizona wide receiver Nate Phillips: “It was definitely a big energy boost for us, a momentum shift to start. They got the ball first, so everybody’s thinking, ‘Oregon’s just gonna go out there fast, they’re gonna have two big, explosive plays, and we’ll be down, 7-0.’ For (Mariota) to come out with his first pass attempt, and throw his first pick in like 300 attempts, it was big. Coming in as an underdog and to get a turnover on their first drive, as the underdog? That was huge.”
Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez: “You talk about momentum all the time and you hope it doesn’t play a major factor, but it does. The key is, you know there is going to be momentum swings in our league, every game, and you have to be able to respond to it. This past game (against Cal) we took too long to respond to it and we got lucky in the end. Inevitably there will be swings, and you have to be disciplined enough to fight through it.”
Arizona offensive coordinator Calvin Magee: “That play was something that had been preached since camp. When it was first preached, everyone was like, ‘Will it ever really happen that way?’ And when it happened, I think it made people realize, ‘Boy, those are the things we worked on.’ They actually may happen in a game.”
Rodriguez: “That was something we hadn’t worked on since August, so I could tell they were dialed in.”
Oregon coach Mark Helfrich: “We came out, returned the opening kickoff to the 50-yard line, doinked it off our hands for a pick. That was kind of a microcosm of game, of that week.”
Arizona cornerbacks coach David Lockwood: “The play Shaq makes is a hell of a play. It sets the tone, gets the whole place rocking and more so it’s like telling the guys, ‘Hey, we can do this.’ ”
Still, not everyone on the Arizona sideline was convinced.
One play does not a game make.
Not against Oregon, which has the potential for a touchdown on every offensive play. The Wildcats knew the Ducks’ potential for ruthlessness, and even though Arizona scored following the Oregon gaffe on a 6-yard Ka’Deem Carey touchdown run, this was no time to let up. Maybe equally improbable as the opening interception was the Ducks’ second offensive series, which went for all of 1 yard on three plays.
Arizona capitalized, driving the ball 59 yards on 10 plays behind Carey and B.J. Denker. Carey had 21 yards on the drive and Denker was 4 for 4, capping off the drive with a 9-yard touchdown pass to Phillips.
That erased the doubt on the Arizona sideline.
Phillips: “It wasn’t before, it was in the game, when we scored that second touchdown — that’s when we really felt it. We were up 14-0 on Oregon, and it was kind of like, ‘Wow, OK, we have all the momentum.’”
Oregon came back on the next series, and the Ducks did what the Ducks do — marched down the field before Arizona fans could catch their breath. Only this time, the Cats buckled down with an active and feisty defense, and the Oregon drive stalled, with the Ducks settling for a field goal.
Arizona’s offense then toughened up, used the run to open up the pass and marched down the field. Denker threw a 9-yard touchdown pass to put the Wildcats up 21-3.
Helfrich: “(Carey) and the quarterback played really, really well. They were both lights out. Ka’Deem is unbelievable player, one of heaviest runners in the Pac-12 in a long time. That guy was always an impressive player.”
Magee: “We got a lot of hidden yards in that game, yards that ended up helping us in the big picture. (Carey) practiced hard, ran hard all year, and the kid’s body was ready for it, because of how he prepared.”
Phillips: “Ka’Deem was definitely Ka’Deem. When we come in to work out the Sunday after the game, I see Ka’Deem in there with a weight vest on. He just had 40-something carries, he’s a running back, he took a beating all game long, And I’m here, a receiver, probably got hit four or five times, and I’m sore. I’m looking at him like that dude is crazy. But he was all smiles in the locker room.”
Lockwood: “At halftime, we were up, and it was like, we have the game in our hands and we just have to seal it. We had to put it away.”
Phillips: “We were at our house, with our crowd, our crew, the Zona Zoo behind us.”
Pivotal Pick, Part 2
It wasn’t until early in the fourth quarter that Oregon would threaten again, with Mariota throwing a short touchdown pass to Josh Huff.
Carey again responded, finishing off a 75-yard drive with a 1-yard touchdown jaunt — No. 25’s fourth of the game. It was another punch to the Oregon midsection, but the Wildcats still needed a knockout blow.
That came from Richardson.
With just under six minutes left, Richardson intercepted Mariota at the Arizona 3-yard line.
Lockwood: “We’ve got good schemes on both sides of the ball, and a whole lot of coaching experience. When it comes down to it, if you believe and execute and win one-on-one battles, you have a shot.”
Phillips: “They were driving and going to score, and Shaq picks it in the end zone. That kind of sealed it in our mind. The game was ours. We had control of it. And then, you know, we fed No. 25 and that was that.”
The two teams are eager to meet again Thursday.
Both are undefeated, and the Oregon offense is no less a juggernaut than it was a year ago. Mariota has thrown 13 touchdowns in four games, and, predictably, zero interceptions.
Both teams have put last year’s improbable Wildcat wallop in the past.
Helfrich: “It is a situation where we have to handle our business, and bring our best A-game because we know they will.”
Rodriguez: “They’ll probably mention it, but they probably won’t have to too much. Those guys are competitors, great competitors, and they haven’t lost a lot of games. They’ve got enough motivation as it is and it’s gonna be a great environment there.
“Once the ball is kicked off, last year is in the past.”