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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

Arizona WBB looks to rebound at home against UC San Diego
Jason Dayee, Assistant Sports Editor • December 7, 2023
 

    MISSION ACCOMPLISHED

    Arizona head coach Mike Stoops, far left, and other Wildcats celebrate their first bowl game win since 1998 after a 31-21 win over No. 17 BYU in the Pioneer Las Vegas Bowl at Sam Boyd Stadium on Saturday night.
    Arizona head coach Mike Stoops, far left, and other Wildcats celebrate their first bowl game win since 1998 after a 31-21 win over No. 17 BYU in the Pioneer Las Vegas Bowl at Sam Boyd Stadium on Saturday night.

    Arizona 31, No. 17 BYU 21

    LAS VEGAS – Arizona head coach Mike Stoops had already begun his postgame press conference following the Wildcats’ 31-21 win over No. 17 BYU in the Pioneer Las Vegas Bowl when quarterback Willie Tuitama entered the room.

    Tuitama’s eyes bugged as if he had never been interviewed by that many members of the media. He sat down next to Stoops, grabbed the coach’s neck and shook it gently.

    The smile and sheer look of enjoyment poured out simultaneously from the quarterback and head coach.

    Stoops, Tuitama, and the Wildcats finally had nothing more to accomplish. The team won its first bowl game in 10 years with a victory over the Cougars and put Arizona football back on the map in front of 40,047 fans at Sam Boyd Stadium.

    “”I love this team. All year they have been really special,”” Stoops said. “”They have embraced this challenge and played for me. Willie, four years ago, we were nothing. We were bottom of the Pac-10. We have climbed ourselves out of the hole and it took so much day in and day out to turn the program around.

    “”This was five years in the making,”” Stoops added. “”It all came together the last month of the season and I couldn’t be more proud of the seniors who brought Arizona back.””

    It took every bit of what was arguably one of Tuitama’s best performances as a Wildcat to get the job done, given the Wildcats didn’t always look their best throughout the game.

    Tuitama, who was named the Las Vegas Bowl MVP after the game, threw for two touchdown passes, 325 yards through the air, and added a 6-yard rushing score to boost the Wildcats to their first bowl victory since 1998.

    The quarterback admitted it would be hard to match the feelings he felt after the game, especially with both the MVP and Las Vegas Bowl trophy in his hands.

    Add 10 years of redemption, and Tuitama will go down as one of the best quarterbacks in the history of Arizona football.

    “”There were a lot of people who thought we couldn’t do it,”” Tuitama said. “”BYU is a great team, they were 10-2, and there were a lot of people who doubted us and we came out and played good team football.””

    There were times in the game when it looked like Arizona wasn’t going to grab the victory, namely in the third quarter when the Cougars took their first lead of the game. Quarterback Max Hall found Andrew George in the back of the end zone to give the team a 14-10 lead.

    Showing resiliency like it had so many times during the regular season, Arizona scored shortly after by adding two touchdowns in the third quarter and grabbing the lead back permanently.

    Tuitama found receiver Delashuan Dean on a 37-yard touchdown pass when the wideout slipped past the Cougar secondary for the easy score. Not to be outdone, Tuitama found Chris Gronkowski shortly after on a 24-yard game to take the control back.

    “”We definitely weren’t intimidated by them going up for the first time in the third quarter,”” said Dean, who grabbed seven passes for 88 yards and a touchdown. “”We knew they couldn’t stop our offense. We just knew we needed to get into a really good rhythm and that’s what we did.””

    As much as the Arizona offense sparkled, the defense stepped up to suffocate a potent offensive attack by BYU. The defense had Hall running for his life for the majority of the game, forcing the Cougar quarterback to lose a fumble and throw an interception.

    The defense may have had a solid game, holding the Cougars to 21 points, but it is already looking to do it bigger next season.

    “”I don’t want to get too crazy but look for us to try to do something bigger; we’re going to work really hard in the offseason,”” said safety Cam Nelson. “”We’re going to work very hard in spring ball, we’re going to have a good defense (next year). … We’ve got a lot returning.””

    Arizona hadn’t been put in a particularly good situation as of late with rumors that Stoops could be interested in taking the head coaching vacancy at Iowa State, a team in the Big 12 Conference, in which his brother, Bob Stoops, coaches at Oklahoma.

    But with the hiring of former Auburn assistant Paul Rhoads at Iowa State, Mike Stoops looks to stay put and continue to bring Arizona’s program back to prominence.

    “”I’m just very happy that coach Stoops is staying; we heard a lot of rumors earlier this week, a lot of guys were worried (Friday),”” Nelson said. “”But when we saw that pop up on ESPN today, man, we were just happy that we got our coach back.””

    With an abundance of players returning in the midst of key losses such as Tuitama, receiver Mike Thomas, and linebacker Ronnie Palmer, it wouldn’t be out of line to expect Arizona to be back, too.

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