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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Homecoming magic: Wildcats do it again

    Sophomore quarterback Willie Tuitama hugs jubilant UA head coach Mike Stoops after Arizonas 24-20 upset of then No. 8 California Saturday at Arizona Stadium. Arizona improved to 5-5 and could become bowl-eligible with a win in one of its last two games. The Wildcats have won three of their last four Homecoming games.
    Sophomore quarterback Willie Tuitama hugs jubilant UA head coach Mike Stoops after Arizona’s 24-20 upset of then No. 8 California Saturday at Arizona Stadium. Arizona improved to 5-5 and could become bowl-eligible with a win in one of its last two games. The Wildcats have won three of their last four Homecoming games.

    Note to the other nine teams in the Pacific 10 Conference: Stay away from Arizona Stadium on Homecoming in early November – especially if you’re in the top 10.

    For the second straight season, the Wildcats pulled off a monumental upset over Homecoming weekend, this time taking down then-No. 8 California 24-20 Saturday behind a stifling defense and two second-half touchdowns by running back Chris Henry to complete the dramatic comeback.

    “”It was amazing,”” said Henry, who finished with 57 yards, 50 of which came in the second half. “”I don’t even know a word for it. There’s no word for how big the win is.””

    Quarterback Willie Tuitama tried.

    “”It’s just big,”” he said. “”It’s just huge.””

    Arizona, which has won two straight games over ranked opponents for the first time since 1992 after taking down then-No. 25 Washington State last week, improved to 5-5 overall and 3-4 in the Pac-10 despite trailing California (8-2, 6-1) 17-3 at the half.

    But the Wildcats were a big toe away from heartbreak.

    Cal wideout DeSean Jackson – who had twice burned Arizona earlier in the game, including a 95-yard punt return for a score in the opening minutes – took a short pass from Nate Longshore, slipped a tackle and tiptoed 63 yards down the left sideline into the end zone to put the Bears up with just over two minutes to play.

    But after a lengthy review, it was ruled that Jackson’s right foot was out of bounds at the Arizona 41.

    “”It felt like I got stabbed in the heart,”” said cornerback Antoine Cason, who was beat on the play.

    Five plays later at the Arizona 27, defensive end Marcus Smith got a piece of Longshore’s throw, and sophomore linebacker Ronnie Palmer did the rest, catching the floating ball at the 18-yard line and falling at the 20 to secure the win.

    “”Man, I dreamt it for a while, and it finally happened,”” said Palmer, who dropped two near-interceptions earlier this season. “”Third time’s the charm.””

    It was the first interception of Palmer’s career.

    “”And it couldn’t have come at a better time,”” he said.

    Tuitama took two knees to send the fans spilling onto the field, an eerie reminder of Arizona’s 52-14 stomping of then-No. 7 UCLA just 371 days prior on Homecoming Nov. 5 of last year.

    “”There are some similarities – the people rushing the field at the end,”” said UA head coach Mike Stoops. “”That’s always a good sign.””

    To many Wildcats, however, this win was different.

    “”I think this year was a little more unique,”” said wideout Mike Thomas, who finished with 68 yards on four catches, including a 39-yard reception that set up Arizona’s first touchdown. “”This kind of proved to everybody that we’re here to stay and we’re gonna play.””

    Said Palmer: “”This win feels a lot better. …This was the one for the defense. UCLA, that was for the offense. This was for the defense.””

    But Palmer’s pick wasn’t even the biggest of the game.

    Tied at 17 early in the fourth quarter, Cason jumped in front of Longshore’s pass and returned it 39 yards for his first-career touchdown to give Arizona a 24-17 lead with 12:39 to play in the game.

    “”I read the throw, and he had an option where to throw it,”” Cason said, “”and he looked one way, and looked the other way and made the bad decision.””

    “”There’s no better feeling than that,”” he added. “”That was the touchdown that I think pretty much won the game. It was a great feeling.””

    After the Arizona offense struggled to kick into gear in the first half – backup cornerback Devin Ross led the team in rushing at the half with just a 10-yard run on a fake punt – it looked like the rout was on.

    But with his team trailing 17-3 at the half thanks in large part to the efforts of Jackson, who had a 62-yard scoring reception in addition to his punt return, Stoops challenged his offense in the locker room.

    “”We just told ourselves that we weren’t getting it done offensively,”” said Tuitama, who finished with 202 yards on 17-of-34 passing, including 7-of-9 in the second half. “”We just knew that our defense was going to hold them, and we just had to go out there and help them out.””

    Apparently, the challenge from the third-year head coach worked.

    Henry scored the first of his touchdowns on a 1-yard dive nine minutes into the third quarter and added the second a drive later.

    When Cason took Longshore’s pass back on Cal’s ensuing possession, it marked the third straight drive on which Arizona scored after it was forced to punt five times in a row.

    “”I thought we came out with a little better execution offensively in the second half, and that was really the difference in the game,”” Stoops said.

    Cal entered with an eight-game winning streak since losing its season opener at No. 22 Tennessee and had had its way with Arizona in recent years, winning the past two games by a combined victory margin of 66-0. Stoops said the win was “”a little more gratifying”” than the UCLA upset last year.

    “”(Cal) is a team that’s beaten us soundly the last two years. …We’ve closed the gap on virtually everyone in this program,”” he said.

    The five wins are the most since the 2001 Wildcats finished 5-6 and moved Arizona within one game of becoming eligible for the program’s first bowl since 1998.

    “”This five wins, this is a big thing,”” Thomas said. “”Just having those five wins, it’s a good feeling.””

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