© 2024 ALLCITY Network Inc.
All rights reserved.
Arizona was down 24-13, hadn’t done a dang thing on offense for two quarters, and Oklahoma had its hand raised, ready to strike a dagger through the Wildcats’ heart late in the third quarter.
I’m going to start there.
Oh, we can – and will – write odes to the Wildcats’ 2023 football season, a three-years-in-the-making opus from coach Jedd Fisch. But that’s a lot of time to cover.
Let’s talk about 12 minutes, six seconds in Thursday night’s Alamo Bowl.
That’s how long it took Arizona to score 25 points, discarding the Sooners’ dagger with mighty swings of its turnover sword and then Texas two-stepping to a wild 38-24 victory in San Antonio that turned a feel-good season into a feel-great, let’s-party-all-night, can’t-stop, won’t-stop love affair.
“We just love each other,” linebacker Martell Irby said right after the game about his teammates.
“That’s all it is. That’s all it comes down to. We just love each other. Spending each day with each other; trying to figure out life with each other. It just translates onto the football field into a 10-win season.”
As for that 10th victory, it didn’t look like it was going to happen with Oklahoma at the Arizona 23 in the final seconds of the third quarter. At that point, the Sooners had scored 24 unanswered points and had outgained Arizona 441-99 in the previous two quarters.
You were bracing for a knockout punch from OU, but then …
Oklahoma quarterback Jackson Arnold hit Jalil Farooq on a quick slant. Farooq stepped, spun and then was introduced to the helmet of Dalton Johnson. The ball popped into the air as if shot out of a toaster, and Gunner Maldonado snatched it at the 13-yard line.
As Maldonado began navigating up the left sideline, Treydan Stukes was out front, first blocking Arnold out of the play and then clearing out the last potential tackler near the goal line. Maldonado scored with 2 seconds left in the quarter, and that’s where our 12:06 of glory begins.
It might not have been Chuck Cecil’s 106-yard interception return against Arizona State. It might not be Ortege Jenkins’ Leap by the Lake. It might not be the Hill Mary. It might not be Darryll Lewis turning away Bill Musgrave at the goal line.
But damn if that 87-yard fumble return isn’t instantly one of the top 10 plays in Wildcats history.
“The pick six, man, that was just an amazing play from Dalton right here,” Maldonado said in the postgame press conference. “He just had a great break on the ball, great hit on the guy, ball came out, and then my teammates just rallied with me and blocked as hard as they could all the way down.”
After a nifty two-point conversion pass in which Fifita ducked and darted out of trouble in the backfield before hitting Montana Lemonious-Craig, Arizona was down only 24-21.
The Wildcats intercepted Arnold on the very next play.
They were merely able to convert that into Tyler Loop’s third field goal, but that was 11 points in about two minutes. Game on, fellas.
“When you look at it, the way our defense played all year, they just got better and better and better and better and better, and they just kept finding ways and finding ways to make plays,” Fisch said.
“We’ve got one of the greatest stories this season with the defensive turnaround from a year ago until today.”
Yeah. And the defense wasn’t done.
The Wildcats forced a punt, with the Sooners pinning Arizona at its 5. Time for the offense, for Fifita, to do something special. Challenge accepted. The Wildcats salvaged a second-and-17 situation with two passes for a combined 31 yards to Tetairoa McMillan.
Arizona was at its 43 when Fifita – “He doesn’t flinch,” Fisch has said multiple times — rolled right, firing a downfield pass that perfectly hit Jacob Cowing in stride. Cowing’s momentum took him up the right sideline and into the end zone for a 57-yard score.
“Every time you need a play you know they’re going to make it,” Fifita said of his top two receivers. “Every time something needs to happen, you can trust that they’re going to do it with no hesitation. They make my job real easy.”
The Wildcats led 31-24 with 5:28 left.
The defense pounced again, swinging its sword.
Oklahoma was facing third-and-20 from its 39, and Arizona rushed only three linemen against Arnold. It was enough. Isaiah Ward, on a stunt to the inside, was quickly in Arnold’s face, sacking the quarterback and knocking the ball loose. Jacob Kongaika recovered it and took it 4 yards to the 19. Two plays later, DJ Williams scored on a 19-yard run.
Are you kidding? Six turnovers from the Wildcats defense?
Arizona led 38-24. There was 2:56 left.
How’s that for 12 minutes, 6 seconds of glory?
The Wildcats needed one more defensive stop to make it official, and that was that.
(I mean, I did mention the Wildcats were going to win.)
Arizona ended the season at 10-3, on a seven-game winning streak, its longest since the 1998 season. Five of the seven victories came against ranked teams.
The Wildcats posted their fourth season in school history with at least 10 wins.
They could move up from No. 14 in the AP poll into the top 10 in the final rankings.
They figure to be the 2024 preseason favorites in their home, the Big 12 conference.
Enjoy the offseason, everyone!
“We’ll be going into the Big 12 with a lot of momentum. We’re on a seven-game win streak. It’s pretty awesome for Arizona football to be on a seven-game win streak,” Fisch said.
“I love our players, and I think the reason why we can do what we do is because our players stay and our players work hard and our players believe. Where else would you rather be than go try to be in the top 10 or better next year?”
Top photo: Arizona Wildcats head coach Jedd Fisch holds the Alamo Bowl trophy after the victory over the Oklahoma Sooners (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)
Get Arizona's Best Sports Content In Your Inbox!
Become a smarter Arizona sports fan with the latest game recaps, analysis and exclusive content from PHNX's writers and podcasters!
Just drop your email below!