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The full history of Arizona Wildcats’ game-winning FGs

Anthony Gimino Avatar
December 19, 2023
Arizona Wildcats placekicker Tyler Loop makes the winning field goal against Colorado in November. (Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports)

Soon after Arizona Wildcats kicker Tyler Loop sent a 24-yard field goal attempt through the uprights to beat Colorado on the final play in November, he received a very special text message.

“Welcome to the club, man.”

The message was from his middle school coach – former Arizona Wildcat Doug Pfaff.

Small world.

Small club.

Pfaff etched his name into school lore about 35 years ago with a trio of game-winning boots – two to beat Washington and one that knocked out Oklahoma, 6-3 in 1989.

With Loop’s game-winner being the first for the Wildcats in nine years, and with Arizona and Oklahoma set to play in the 2023 Alamo Bowl – the programs’ first meeting since that 1989 game – I started to wonder about the Wildcats’ Game-Winning Kick Club.

Just how big is it?

After scouring the archives, I believe there are 13 players who have kicked 16 game-winning field goals for the Wildcats, including one case that happened nearly 100 years ago.

First of all, let’s define it: I considered any field goal that resulted in the winning points in the final minute to be a game-winner. Wait. That’s not exactly true. Pfaff’s 35-yarder to beat Washington in 1989 came with 1:01 left. Exception granted.

“To have only 13 who have been able to say they kicked a game-winner in the final minute … it’s a small club,” Pfaff said. (I’ll write more soon on my free weekly newsletter about Pfaff’s UA glory days and his relationship with Loop. Subscribe now!)

It is worth noting a couple of other memorable kicks that did not quite fit the criteria but should be celebrated.

Gary Coston’s 30-yarder in the final seconds of the 1987 game at Arizona State – after Chuck Cecil recovered Mike Schuh’s muffed catch on the punt snap – wasn’t technically a game-winner. It was a game-tying field goal that allowed the Wildcats to forge a 24-24 outcome, otherwise known as “the tie that felt like a win.”

You’ll find Max Zendejas on this list, but not for his epic 1985 effort against ASU. He drilled a 57-yarder with 5:29 remaining and then hit the go-ahead points with a 32-yarder, although that kick came with 1:43 to go, outside of our 1:01 criteria. Arizona then held on to beat the Sun Devils 16-13.

And, sometimes, circumstances, negate what would otherwise have been a winner. Zendejas kicked a 43-yard field goal against No. 8 UCLA in 1982 with 35 seconds left, but the Bruins rallied to tie the game at 24 with John Lee’s 36-yarder on the final play. No game-winner for Max.

But here they are:

Game-winning FGs in Wildcats history

1927: Milton Morse, 22 yards, 16-13 vs. UCLA, final minute

Details are sketchy. Various newspaper accounts list the distance of the kick as either from 15, 17 or 22 yards. Hard to know exactly what to believe. But let’s go to a write-up from the Los Angeles Times:

“Milton Morse, spectacular Wildcats quarterback, was the hero of the football drama staged here today. Morse scored a field goal from the 17-yard line with the teams deadlocked at 13 apiece. Morse’s boot gave the Wildcats a victory just as the final curtain was dropping.”

The Arizona Republic, under a headline that read “Gridmen Bring Glory to Arizona University,” describe the scene thusly: “(I)t was Morse who broke the deadlock with the unerring accuracy of his educated toe, field kicking the precious three points from the 22-yard line, a kick of such force that it probably would have scored from the 40-yard mark.”

“Educated toe.” What a description.

Morse did more than play quarterback and do place-kicks that day. He intercepted a pass as the “final whistle blew,” according to the Republic.

Oct. 3, 1959: Eddie Wilson, 30 yards, 16-14 vs. Idaho, 0:14 left

Wilson, a sophomore quarterback from Chandler, came off the bench in the second quarter and directed a touchdown drive for a 7-3 lead. He was called on again in the second half, converting a fourth-and-10 pass and eventually scoring on a sneak. His PAT attempt was blocked, and the Wildcats were down 14-13 when they started a drive at their 21 with 4:33 left.

Again, Wilson converted a fourth-down throw and, in one stretch, connected on four consecutive passes to Ken Holbrook, the last moving the ball to the Idaho 12. A couple of plays later, Wilson’s kick was good – the first field goal attempt of his career (although he had handled some PATs).

Starting quarterback Jim Geist was impressed with his understudy, using the highest praise of the day.

“Say, he has ice water in his veins … a regular Johnny Unitas!” Geist was quoted as saying in the Tucson Citizen.

Wilson would go on to lead the team in passing in 1959 and the next two seasons, directing coach Jim LaRue’s team to a 15-4-1 record in his final two seasons. Wilson was picked in the second round (24th overall) in the 1962 NFL Draft and ended up playing four seasons in the AFL.

Nov. 16, 1968: Steve Hurley, 27 yards, 16-15 at Utah, 0:03 left

Hurley’s kick capped what legendary Arizona Daily Star sports editor Abe Chanin called “the most miraculous comeback in 69 years of Wildcat football.”

Arizona was down 15-0 on Nov. 15, in a driving snowstorm in Salt Lake City, with 13 minutes to go in the game. Backup quarterback Bruce Lee came in and connected with Ron Gardin on a 62-yard score to make it 15-6. Lee later found tight end Ted Sherwood to make it 15-13 with 1:58 left.

The Wildcats got the ball back at their 27 with 1:36 remaining after Utah inexplicably punted on third down from midfield after recovering the onside kick.

Lee went back to work and Arizona reached the Utah 10 with the clock running and no timeouts. The Cats rushed the field goal team onto the field, and Hurley’s kick through the falling snow gave Arizona the win.

“Boy, that’s unbelievable,” said UA coach Darrell Mudra, who team improved to 7-1. “That’s got to be the damndest miracle.”

Oct. 18, 1975: Lee Pistor, 41 yards, 32-28 vs. Texas Tech, 0:06 left

Wait, you say. How could this be a game-winning kick when the margin is four points?

Hang on. First of all, know that Arizona rallied from a 21-6 third-quarter deficit and improved to 5-0 on the season. Pistor kicked three field goals that day, including the game-winner that came after a 57-yard drive that provided a 30-28 advantage.

On the ensuing kickoff, Arizona chased down and tackled Texas Tech’s Billy Taylor in the end zone for safety.

Nov. 24, 1979: Brett Weber, 27 yards, 27-24 at Arizona State, 0:00 left

Weber was an 18-year-old freshman walk-on whose name wasn’t even in the program when Arizona met Arizona State in Tempe to end the regular season. His only game action earlier in the season came in a junior varsity meetup against Scottsdale Community College.

Against ASU, Weber missed from 49 in the second quarter. But coach Tony Mason, who also used regular kicker Bill Zivic against the Sun Devils (he was good from 34, missed from 39), decided to go with his barefoot-kicking freshman with the Wildcats lining up for a 37-yard field goal on the final play.

Weber missed.

But ASU safety Ron Brown was penalized for roughing the kicker.

Weber was asked in the aftermath if he knew which player had run into him.

“I don’t know,” he was quoted as saying in the Arizona Daily Star. “But he’s a hell of a guy.”

Weber then made the 27-yarder, the first field goal of his career. The victory – only Arizona’s second over ASU in 15 years — propelled the Wildcats to the Fiesta Bowl, where they fell 16-10 to Pitt and a freshman quarterback named Dan Marino.

Oct. 16, 1982: Max Zendejas, 48 yards, 16-13 at Notre Dame, 0:00 left

Zendejas, a 19-year-old freshman, made one of the greatest plays in school history in one of the greatest games in school history as Larry Smith’s Wildcats knocked off the Fighting Irish in South Bend, Ind.

And it would never have happened if Zendejas hadn’t been convinced to come back to the team after “quitting” the team at halftime and going to the team bus.

Zendejas told Javier Morales in a 2009 interview that he was upset Smith did not allow him to try a 52-yard field goal in the final minute of the first half. Zendejas had previously missed from 38 in the swirling wind of Notre Dame Stadium.

Teammates and some coaches had to talk an infuriated Zendejas off the bus.

“I was kind of stubborn back then,” Zendejas told Morales with a laugh, “but I know deep down that I could have made that kick before halftime. I just let it get the best of me but that shows what kind of competitor I am.”

Zendejas made field goals of 38 and 32 in the third quarter, but he did miss from 48 with the Irish up 10-6. The Wildcats tied the game at 13 on Phil Freeman’s 1-yar run with 8:40 left.

The defense held, and Tom Tunicliffe directed the Wildcats within Zendejas range when he completed a 19-yard pass to Brad Anderson on third down to the Irish 32.

Zendejas’ kick was good, although he missed seeing it crawl over the crossbar because he had been knocked down by Dave Duerson on a roughing-the-kicker penalty.

Nov. 26, 1983: Max Zendejas, 45 yards, 17-15 at Arizona State, 0:00 left

The Wildcats reached No. 3 in the AP poll – their highest ranking ever — after a 4-0 start before a 33-33 tie at Cal and, later, a three-game losing streak. But Larry Smith’s team closed with a win over UCLA and this thriller vs. the Sun Devils to finish at 7-3-1.

Max’s older brother, NCAA-record setter Luis, kicked three field goals for the Sun Devils that day, but the Arizona defense made a late stop to get the ball back to the offense at its 37 with 4:44 left.

With fullback Chris Brewer mustering some tough yards, the Wildcats drove 35 yards on eight plays, even though Brewer’s last run left the ball near the right hashmark, not closer to the middle as Max had requested. No matter. He drilled the kick.

“I have a terrific feeling about this season now,” a tearful Smith said after the game.

Nov. 5, 1988: Doug Pfaff, 22 yards, 16-13 at Washington, 0:05 left

Arizona had been winless in six previous tries against 0-6 Washington, including settling for a 2-21 tie a year earlier when Gary Coston missed a 32-yard field goal in the final seconds.

This game seemed destined for a tie, too, on a cold, windy, rainy day in Seattle. The score was 13-13 when Arizona had to punt from its 37 with 1:51 left, when Bret Holley unleashed a 64-yard attempt that rolled dead at the 3.

But then Scott Geyer made the play of the game, sacking Cary Conklin on a blitz on third-and-6 from the 18, with Dana Wells recovering at the 6 with 55 seconds left.

Three plays later, Washington called timeout to try to ice Pfaff. Tomey told him on the sideline: “Knock this thing down the middle and let’s get the heck out of here.”

Yep. Pfaff hit one down the middle.

Sept. 16, 1989: Doug Pfaff, 40 yards, 6-3 vs. Oklahoma, 0:02 left

This is certainly one of the strangest statistical games in Arizona history, as wishbone-based Oklahoma, ranked sixth in the nation, didn’t complete a pass in four attempts, while the Wildcats completed just 4 of 21 for 49 yards.

It was a tough, physical, defensive game on a hot Tucson day – 101 degrees at kickoff – And the Arizona defense gave up only 222 total yards. Arizona merely had 214, but 37 of them came on the final 12-play drive that included a fourth-and-1 conversion at midfield.

The Wildcats needed all of those yards as Pfaff’s kick barely cleared the crossbar. In fact, TV color analyst Bruce Larson mutters “Missed it” as the ball approaches the goal posts. Pfaff had been dealing with groin injury all season, and his leg strengthened ebbed over the course of a game.

“That game, my leg hurt a lot,” Pfaff told Jay Gonzales of the Arizona Daily Star in 1989. “That last kick, I hit it good. That was just all I had left in the leg at that time. Thank God it wasn’t a 41-yard field goal.”

Sept. 23, 1989: Doug Pfaff, 35 yards, 20-17 vs. Washington, 1:01 left

Pfaff was the hero again, just one week after beating Oklahoma. This time, his kick took down No. 11 Washington.

And, as in the previous week, Arizona went exclusively to the run game and converted a fourth-down play on the drive that set up the game-winning points. Ron Veal converted fourth-and-1 at the Washington 36 with a 2-yard dive and eventually moved the Wildcats to the Washington 18.

The Huskies tried to come back, reaching the Arizona 49 with 12 seconds left. But a blitz against Cary Conklin resulted in a lofted up-for-grabs pass that star cornerback Darryll Lewis intercepted.

Oct. 16, 1993: Steve McLaughlin, 27 yards, 27-24 vs. Stanford, 0:00 left

A wild game featured 10 turnovers, huge momentum swings and a classic Dick Tomey moment. When Stanford went up 17-0 in the second quarter, he called timeout before the next kickoff and gathered the entire team on the sideline to deliver a message about poise.

The 11th-ranked Wildcats were on their heels. Remember, this was in the midst of the Desert Swarm era and Arizona hadn’t given up 17 points in any of its previous 10 games. But UA responded to Tomey, scoring a touchdown on its next drive and eventually taking a 24-17 third-quarter lead before Stanford tied the game early in the fourth.

But it was the Swarm – specifically defensive end Akil Jackson – that made the hero play that set up McLaughlin’s kick.

Stanford faced third-and-9 from its 15 with 46 seconds left, when Jackson rushed in from the left side, sacking Steve Stenstrom and forcing the ball loose. Spencer Wray recovered at the 7, and the offense set up the ball the middle of the field for McLaughlin.

Nov. 24, 1995: Jon Prasuhn, 36 yards, 31-28 at Arizona State, 0:22 left

Let’s pick up the game with Arizona trailing 28-14 with 7:54 left, needing something of a miracle. That miracle was wide receiver Richard Dice, playing on a torn ACL, catching three passes for 61 yards on a gotta-have-it scoring drive, which ended in a touchdown one play after his leaping catch along the sideline at the 6.

On the ensuing possession, Chuck Osborne sacked Jake Plummer, knocking the ball loose. Joe Salave’a scooped it up and dashed 8 yards into the end zone to tie the game.

The defense rose up again, forcing a three-and-out with Arizona taking over at its 43. Quarterback Dan White helped navigate the Wildcats on a 10-play drive to set up a last-play field goal from the 18.

Prasuhn, a senior who had been Steve McLaughlin’s understudy for three seasons, made the kick with 22 seconds left to etch his name in Arizona and Territorial Cup lore.

“It was the perfect ending to my career,” he said that day.

Sept. 2, 2006: Nick Folk, 48 yards, 16-13 vs. BYU, 0:01 left

After consecutive 3-8 seasons to begin his Arizona head coaching career, Mike Stoops needed to a good start to his third season, and he got it with a victory over BYU (although we all remember what happened at LSU a week later).

Against the Cougars, quarterback Willie Tuitama drove the Wildcats into position to win the game, directing a 13-play, 44-yard drive to set up Folk, who has gone on to kick 13 NFL game-winners over 16 years.

His 48-yarder against BYU started on the left half and snuck inside the right upright.

“It stayed right. I leaned with it and it snuck in there,” he said after the game. “I was playing with a little bit of fire.”

Nov. 28, 2009: Alex Zendejas, 32 yards, 20-17 at Arizona State, 0:00 left

This ranks right up there in Territorial Cup craziness as the Wildcats were just hoping to get into overtime late in the game. ASU had tied it with 2:02 remaining on a touchdown pass to a diving Kyle Williams, and then Arizona had to punt after going three-and-out.

That’s when Williams went from hero to goat in a hurry.

He muffed the punt catch with about a minute to go, with the ball landing in the arms of Arizona’s Mike Turner at the ASU 22. The turnover set up Zendejas for a game-winner in the stadium in which his uncle, Max, had achieved glory in 1983 and 1985.

But the life of a kicker isn’t easy. A year later, Alex had two extra point attempts blocked against ASU, the first with 27 seconds left in regulation and the second at the end of the second overtime in a 30-29 loss.

Nov. 15, 2014: Casey Skowron, 47 yards, 27-26 vs. Washington, 0:00 left

Arguably the greatest of the game-winners, as it is one of the longest, it helped propel Arizona to the Pac-12 South title (after a couple more wins), and it is the only case on this list in which the game-winning kicker also scored on a trick play.

And, oh, it was sweet redemption.

Skowron, who had been the women’s soccer manager before attending a walk-on football tryout in 2012, had been roasted on social media five weeks earlier after missing a 36-yard field goal in a 28-26 loss to USC with 12 seconds to go.

“I don’t know why people feel the need to be so hateful,” his mother Kathy told me for a story after the Washington game. “To wish someone dead, to wish someone committed suicide over it, I just don’t understand that. The first response was so hateful, but then when people realized there was so much coming at him, the positive stuff was incredibly overwhelming.”

Skowron’s big day including taking a direct snap on a 35-yard field goal attempt – it was fourth-and-4 – and raced around the right end, beating the Huskies to the corner of the end zone.

The final points were set up with a takeaway as turnover-machine Tra’Mayne Bondurant knocked the ball loose from Deontae Cooper, with Derrick Turituri recovering at the Washington 45 with 1:23 left.

Arizona gained 15 yards before the last-play field goal.

Enjoy Gus Johnson on the calls:

Nov. 11, 2023: Tyler Loop, 24 yards, 34-31 at Colorado, 0:00 left

Arizona had dispatched three consecutive ranked teams – No. 19 Washington State, No. 11 Oregon State and No. 20 UCLA – but fell behind early, unable to poke ahead after tying the game on four occasions.

But the Buffaloes left the door open one too many times, missing a 44-yard field with 4:57 left. The Wildcats wasted no time in getting into scoring position, thanks to runs of 21 and 24 yards by Jonah Coleman.

They eventually reached first-and-goal from the 1 with 1:04 left, burning the remaining time until Loop locked in the 24-yarder to give Arizona its only lead of the game with no time left.

Follow Anthony Gimino on X

Top photo: Arizona Wildcats placekicker Tyler Loop makes the winning field goal against Colorado in November. (Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports)

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