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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

A Special Day

Arizona head coach Mike Stoops walked out of the visiting locker room behind Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe on Saturday with his wife by his side, his daughter in his arms and a relieved grin on his face.

Less than 30 minutes earlier, Stoops’ face showed a look of disbelief as he watched the ASU offense celebrate the equalizing touchdown. Little did he expect the series of quirky events that would follow and eventually lead him to sit at the postgame press conference with the Saguaro Trophy — given to the game’s winning coach — on his right and the Territorial Cup on his left.

So many times this season, Stoops and the Wildcats have seen similar situations, but finally the bounce went Arizona’s way in a 20-17 victory.

“”I don’t know how much more I can take,”” Stoops said. “”You’ve got to take what comes at you. You play the percentages and you play the game and hopefully you get a play. They created a turnover and that’s what we needed.

“”I’m certainly proud of our team and our effort throughout the course of that game,”” he added. “”It wasn’t easy.””

While Arizona eventually managed a narrow escape, the scenario that led the Wildcats to the final seconds of the game was far from predictable.

Arizona never unleashed an offensive assault headed by its leader, quarterback Nick Foles. Quite frankly, Arizona was flat all game long.

“”We didn’t play our best, let’s put it that way,”” said offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes. “”To lose a game like we lost last week against Oregon and then play a rivalry game is a difficult thing to do. We’re not making excuses, but it was hard, and ASU just played very nice defense.””

Whatever the reason, Arizona’s offense throughout the first half was more bland than a rice cake. At the half, the Wildcats had only amassed 166 yards of total offense and 67 of those came on one play, a career-long touchdown jaunt by running back Keola Antolin.

The second half didn’t get much better. Foles and his offense failed to reach the end zone and sat idly by as ASU began steadily erasing its deficit until, once again, Arizona found itself in a situation all too familiar. Arizona’s defense, which had been dominant all day long, was wavering, and the Wildcats found themselves on the brink of losing a game that at one point was all but won.

But then came Arizona’s saving grace, the only part of the Wildcats’ team that had played and performed well nearly all game long — special teams.

The unit had already accounted for 10 of Arizona’s 17 points. Kicker Alex Zendejas had gone one for two in field goal attempts — one was blocked — and special teamer Orlando Vargas had blocked an ASU punt and scooped up the loose ball for the Wildcats’ second score. Minus Antolin’s big run in the first quarter, the special teams provided the rest of Arizona’s scoring.

“”It’s good to come out here and have special teams be such a big part of the win,”” Vargas said. “”We come out every game and want to do something big. Not necessarily a punt return or block, just something good. And that’s all we wanted to come out and do today.””

It came as a fitting end that the game’s defining play, a muffed punt return by ASU’s Kyle Williams, came on a special teams effort. There would be no offensive touchdown to end the game. Stoops played to set up the field goal, to let the players on his team that had the most success get the opportunity to seal the win.

The biggest responsibility was given to Zendejas, whose season has been littered with inconsistency. The sophomore came into the game 15 of 19 on field goal attempts and had given the coaching staff reason not to depend on his leg. But in a game where the special teams unit dominated, it was only right that the Territorial Cup was won by the same group.

“”Every kick, you never know,”” said special teams coordinator Jeff Hammerschmidt. “”I’m just really proud of Alex. I’ve always had confidence in him and it’s great to have him get that opportunity.””

After the game, little media attention was given to Foles or even Antolin, the game’s MVP. The stars were Zendejas, Vargas and Mike Turner, who recovered Williams’ botched punt.

The players appeared to soak it in — like they should — because for a special teamer, these days don’t come around too often.

— Bobby Stover is a materials science and engineering senior.

He can be reached at sports@wildcat.arixona.edu

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