Miracle in Tucson

Roman Veytsmansports editor

Roman Veytsman
sports editor

Roman Veytsman

They were left for dead on the side of the road like deer on a deserted highway.

In the year they were supposed to make a giant lunge forward, they were taking steps back.

And then it happened, a change that saved their season, gave them back their dignity and changed the course of what appeared to be another three-win season on the horizon.

Only they can’t put their finger on it. Can’t pinpoint what that change was. Can’t say when it happened. Can’t completely grasp why, all of a sudden, the Wildcats beat three teams ranked in the BCS top 25 and will likely go bowling for the first time since 1998.

“”It was bound to happen,”” running back Chris Henry said of the team’s turnaround. “”It’s like blowing up a balloon; it’s going to pop eventually. We kept blowing at it, and it blew up.””

How can you explain a running back who averaged 2.9 yards per carry throughout the season gaining 191 yards and averaging 6.6 yards per carry against the Pac-10’s leading rush defense? It’s like trying to explain how the guys in “”Prison Break”” were surrounded at the end of the first season but still escaped.

How can you explain the starting quarterback suffering two concussions and then coming back to lead Arizona’s best offensive game of the season, only to get hit in the head again and step aside for a redshirt senior who earlier in the season got his big break before tearing his MCL? You could put this season in a movie, and the story line would seem more unrealistic than “”Varsity Blues.””

How can you explain an offensive line who couldn’t put a hole through a paper wall opening up a hole the size of the ozone layer in the third quarter for Henry’s 61-yard touchdown run? How can you explain a defense who had forced 15 turnovers in the first nine games this year, causing nine turnovers against offensive juggernauts California and Oregon, the Pac-10 leaders in scoring offense?

“”Use your first instinct and don’t second-guess yourself,”” cornerback Wilrey Fontenot said.

First everyone on the outside believed. Arizona Stadium was sold out for Brigham Young and then-No. 3 USC, and football jerseys were flying off the shelves.

Then nobody believed. The Wildcats had become a disappointment, students stopped showing up to the point that one fan openly told the Arizona Daily Wildcat he went home to play Solitaire and the script from UA head coach Mike Stoops’ first two years had stayed the same.

It was bound to happen. It’s like blowing up a balloon, it’s going to pop eventually. We kept blowing at it, and it blew up.

– Chris Henry, UA running back on winning

But then, as John Madden would say, Boom! An unexpected win on the road at then- No. 25 Washington State.

And then Boom! Again. An even more unexpected win at home against then-No. 8 California.

And then a third Boom! – the loudest of the three because with it came a word that Arizona fans threw in their vocabulary trash cans after Arizona started the season 3-5: bowl. The win came against a team who hadn’t lost at home all season and in a place the Wildcats hadn’t won since 1986.

But their belief didn’t waver, they’ll tell you.

“”If you’re doubting anything that has to do with football and you’re a football player in your program, you shouldn’t be there,”” Henry said. “”We kept faith, and we keep faith. It’s all you can do.””

Three weeks ago, I ended my give-up-on-the-season column with, “”So if you think you’ll see a winning football team in Tucson any time soon, think again.””

I’d be lying if I told you the Wildcats’ 3-0 record since that column was motivation for the team. Maybe the Wildcats were a good football team all along.

“”Regardless of what the media and people want to tell you, I could tell we were playing some pretty good football,”” Stoops said.

Who would have thought?