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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Defense steps up against potent Cal offense

    Cornerback Antoine Cason returns the game-winning interception for a touchdown in Arizonas 24-20 win over then-No. 8 California on Nov. 11 at Arizona Stadium. Cason announced yesterday that he will return for his senior year.
    Cornerback Antoine Cason returns the game-winning interception for a touchdown in Arizona’s 24-20 win over then-No. 8 California on Nov. 11 at Arizona Stadium. Cason announced yesterday that he will return for his senior year.

    “”The Drive,”” John Elway’s famous 98-yard scoring jaunt in the 1986 AFC Championship Game, put the NFL quarterback on the national radar as a player to watch over what became a Hall of Fame career.

    Then-No. 8 California’s scoreless 72-yard drive in the waning moments of the Arizona football team’s 24-20 Homecoming victory Saturday clearly won’t have the same impact on the Wildcats’ defense.

    But it may have proved the unit belongs among the elite groups in the Pacific 10 Conference.

    “”We have to keep showing it, we have to keep with it,”” said junior cornerback Antoine Cason. “”Winning says a lot, and we just have to keep playing.””

    Arizona, which entered Saturday tied with Cal for third in the Pac-10 in opponents’ scoring average (19.7 points per game), held its seventh team in eight games to 21 points or fewer.

    The Wildcats forced quarterback Nate Longshore, who came in as the conference leader in pass efficiency, into his worst performance of the season (17-of-36 passing, one touchdown, three interceptions).

    And after allowing the Golden Bears, previously tied with Oregon for the Pac-10 lead in scoring, a 17-3 halftime advantage, Arizona gave up only a field goal the rest of the way.

    The defense’s final trip to the field clinched that much.

    Cal took the ball on its own 10-yard line with 3:14 left in the game. It needed a touchdown to avoid an upset to an Arizona team it outscored 66-0 the previous two seasons.

    Senior Syndric Steptoe and junior Chris Henry celebrate after Henry’s one-yard touchdown run in the third quarter of Arizona’s 24-20 win over California. Henry rushed for 57 yards on 25 carries and scored two touchdowns, both in the second half, while Steptoe led the team in receptions.

    Longshore stepped back in the pocket on each of the next 11 plays. He moved the team down to Arizona’s 18 with less than two minutes remaining, only to throw an interception to linebacker Ronnie Palmer.

    Game over.

    “”I was blessed for just the moment,”” Palmer said of his pick, which came after defensive end Marcus Smith tipped Longshore’s third-down pass. “”I’m going to try to enjoy it for as long as I can.””

    Arizona’s big stand was set up by the biggest individual performance of the night from either team.

    A minute into the final quarter, Cason stepped in front of fullback Byron Storer and dashed 39 yards down the east sideline to give Arizona its decisive lead. It was Cason’s first career touchdown return and his 10th career pick overall.

    “”No better feeling than that,”” he said. “”That was the play that, I think, pretty much won the game for us. It was a great feeling.””

    Longshore had found Storer for 14 yards near the east sideline on the previous play, and Cason said he knew to keep that area of the field in mind.

    “”On film, I saw that when he’s going to throw the ball, that’s immediately where he’s going to look,”” Cason said. “”He had a decision to make to throw it here or here, and he threw it that way.””

    The play gave Arizona its first and most important lead of the game, yet it came with virtually a quarter left to play.

    The Wildcats seemed to embrace the challenge of defending a lead, giving Cal only one more trip into the red zone.

    Cal used a 44-yard completion to wide receiver Lavelle Hawkins to get to the Wildcats’ 1 with 10 minutes left.

    Common sense dictated the Golden Bears would go to running back Marshawn Lynch, who entered as the Pac-10’s leading rusher and had already logged a 56-yard run.

    Indeed, Lynch carried on the next two plays – getting stopped for a one-yard loss each time.

    Longshore threw to wide receiver Robert Jordan on third down, but linebacker Dane Krogstad rushed in to knock the ball away, setting up Tom Schneider’s 20-yard field goal.

    “”That’s why we go through two-a-days, that’s why we work out all summer – you never know when you’re going to have to reach down deep,”” said junior linebacker Spencer Larsen. “”That was a big stop right there.””

    Arizona prospered even without its two starting safeties.

    Junior Dominic Patrick dressed but did not play after suffering a neck stinger Nov. 4 at Washington State, and senior Michael Johnson left the game in the second quarter after injuring his left hamstring on DeSean Jackson’s 62-yard touchdown reception.

    Freshman Corey Hall earned his first career interception in the first quarter in place of Patrick, and sophomore Michael Klyce finished with five tackles, tied for second on the team, in relief of Johnson.

    “”When your number’s called, you got to be ready,”” Klyce said. “”There’s no way to describe it. It’s a big win for our team.””

    It was another important victory for Arizona’s defense, which held No. 4 USC to its fewest points since 2002 in the Wildcats’ 20-3 loss on Sept. 23.

    With the Ducks’ prolific run-heavy attack on the horizon Saturday, Arizona has shown itself capable of containing the best its conference rivals can throw at it.

    “”(Cal) got a few big (plays), but we just buckled down,”” Cason said. “”Like I said before, we just have to keep fighting, never give up.””

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