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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Fitting finale

Fitting finale

LOS ANGELES — Mike Stoops’ smile said it all Saturday.

As the Arizona head coach joyfully made his way off the field at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum Saturday evening, Wildcat boosters — the same ones he struggled to impress after first taking the Arizona job — were waiting to greet him with praise and congratulations.

All the while, Stoops wore a smile as large as the mountain he climbed to reach the very moment he now basked in.

During postgame interviews, Mike’s brother and Arizona defensive coordinator Mark Stoops walked away from reporters, overcome with emotion, upon being asked where Arizona’s 21-17 win over the Trojans ranked in his career.

The win did far more for the Wildcats than simply secure their second-place position in the Pacific 10 Conference or land them in a more prestigious bowl game. Saturday’s victory marked the first time Mike Stoops beat USC as Arizona’s head coach, while also signifying the legitimacy of the football program.

While USC is certainly not the Pac-10 powerhouse it has been in years past, Arizona’s ability to beat the elusive Trojans in front of the Coliseum crowd proves the Wildcats can compete with anyone in the conference.

“”To beat USC you have to have a very complete program and a team without many flukes,”” Mike Stoops said. “”I don’t know what USC’s going through, I just know to beat them you have to be pretty darn good in a lot of different ways.

“”We have an awfully good football team and that’s what it took to beat some very stiff competition.””

The significance of Saturday was not lost on the Arizona players either, none of whom had ever beaten the mighty Trojans nor seen themselves headed into bowl season in such a favorable position.

Just two years removed from being a team trapped in a 10-year bowl drought, Arizona steadily improved, earning a trip to the Las Vegas Bowl last December and now, with an overall impressive season capped by Saturday’s emotional win, the Wildcats have reached a peak the program has not seen since the late 1990s.

“”It feels good, amazing, an indescribable feeling,”” said receiver Juron Criner, who pulled down the game-winning touchdown pass. “”What would you say if someone asked you how it felt to rewrite history? It’s just unexplainable.””

Unexplainable is how so many of Arizona’s games ended this season. The madness began with Washington, a game Arizona appeared to have won until an errant pass from quarterback Nick Foles took an inexplicable bounce into the arms of a Husky defender, who carried it into the end zone to steal the win.

Next came California, where a mental error by Foles led to the Wildcats being pushed out of field goal range, therefore losing their third game of the season.

A week later, Arizona watched as Oregon took control late in a game that the Wildcats appeared to have wrapped up and later erased Arizona’s Rose Bowl hopes in double overtime.

Finally, the bounces began going the Wildcats’ way last weekend, when Arizona once again escaped late-game opponent threats from ASU and took advantage of a Sun Devil turnover to capture a much-needed win on a last-second field goal.

It was therefore fitting that in the Wildcats’ most significant victory of their unpredictable season, they would again need to overcome late-game turmoil.

Defense proved to be the key against USC, as it had all season, and after Criner hauled in the go-ahead score, the Wildcats shut out USC on four straight plays, putting the game out of reach for the Trojans and putting a delightful taste in the mouth of everyone involved.

“”There’s just so many great things about this win; you just can’t name them all,”” said defensive end Ricky Elmore. “”We’ve had a lot of tough games this year, but beating USC on their home field is big. I’m going to remember this for the rest of my life.””

The only moment that could top the one Arizona experienced Saturday in Los Angeles, Calif., will be a victory celebration over Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 30.

Arizona has been through a lot this season and even Mike Stoops couldn’t deny it Saturday.

“”It’s been hard going through all of this, it’s emotional in a lot of ways,”” Stoops said of his team’s season. “”But you learn from it and we learned from this experience today.””

Arizona just needs to implement the lessons learned toward one more challenge.

Like the rest of their season, a win for the Wildcats will likely not come easily. My guess is it will come down to the final few minutes.

But looking back at the treacherous season Arizona just completed, what a fitting ending it will be.

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