Arizona freshman Grant Gunnell threw for 352 yards and a touchdown in his first career start in college, playing in place of injured Khalil Tate, in Arizona’s dramatic 20-17 win over UCLA on Saturday night at Arizona Stadium.
Gunnell looked as cool and collected as he was at St. Pius X High School near Houston last season.
A year ago on the very day, Gunnell, a 6-foot-6, 225-pound talent rarely seen at that size at Arizona, completed 42 of 57 pass attempts for 530 yards with six touchdowns and an interception St. Pius X’s 57-48 loss to Plano (Texas) Prestonwood Christian.
Nick Foles, who also hails from Texas, was the last quarterback of Gunnell’s height at 6-foot-6, concluding his illustrious career at Arizona eight years ago.
Tate did not play because of hamstring and ankle injuries suffered at the end of the previous game against Texas Tech two weeks ago. J.J. Taylor, Arizona’s leading rusher, also did not play in order to nurse a leg injury.
Gunnell, who practiced with Arizona’s first-team unit during the week, completed 29 of 44 pass attempts and 182 of his passing yards were in the second half when Arizona outscored UCLA 14-10. He completed 12 of 15 passes in the second half.
“He showed great strides; we’re really proud of him,” Arizona receiver Cedric Peterson said. “He showed great leadership.”
Gunnell completed a pass on a third-and-9 play at the Arizona 7 with 6:00 left in the fourth quarter to keep the drive alive. It later appeared that he connected with Brian Casteel on a 42-yard touchdown pass but a review showed Casteel’s left knee touched the ground when the completion was made 2 yards behind the line of scrimmage.
Arizona eventually had to punt and UCLA gained possession on its 9 with 2:52 remaining.
Arizona’s defense had to answer the call to give the Wildcats the win in their Pac-12 opener.
UCLA backup quarterback Austin Burton, playing in place of injured Dorian Thompson-Robinson (ankle), guided the Bruins to the Arizona 21, setting up the failed 38-yard field goal attempt by J.J. Molson. The miss with 34 seconds left came after Kevin Sumlin called a timeout right before the first try, which Molson made.
That was the story of Arizona’s defense on the night — just good enough, and that’s all Kevin Sumlin needs at this point in his second year in the program. Arizona is 3-1 overall heading into next week’s game at Colorado.
The Wildcats held UCLA, which outscored Washington State 67-63 last week, to only 17 points. This comes after Arizona held Texas Tech to two touchdowns in a 28-14 win.. It was the first time the Wildcats won consecutive games holding opponents to less than 20 points since 2013 when they beat UNLV 58-13 and Texas-San Antonio 38-13.
The Wildcats broke up seven passes, recorded their national-leading ninth interception (third of the year by Lorenzo Burns), and had five tackles for loss (including two by Colin Schooler) with two sacks (by Anthony Pandy and Jalen Harris). Schooler had 13 tackles to lead Arizona and Tony Fields had 10, signifying one of the best linebacker performances for the Wildcats in decades.
“Everybody stepped up,” Fields said. “It was one of our best overall games since I’ve been here. … Everybody is stepping up and getting on the same page.”
The Bruins opened the second half with a 37-yard field goal by Molson, capping a 17-play drive that went 56 yards.
On Arizona’s first play of the ensuing possession, Gunnell connected with a wide-open Darrius “Bam” Smith for a 75-yard touchdown pass, giving the Wildcats their first lead, 13-10 with 8:17 left in the third quarter. Smith finished with five catches for 99 yards.
Thompson-Robinson exited the game because of an ankle injury with 50 seconds left in the third quarter. He completed 17 of 33 passes for 180 yards with a touchdown and interception. He also rushed for 63 yards on nine carries. Burton completed 5 of 9 passes for 48 yards.
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Kelly rushed 36 yards on the play after Thompson-Robinson left the game and then scored on a 3-yard run with 2 seconds left in the quarter to put UCLA ahead 17-13.
Arizona converted a critical fourth-and-1 play with Gary Brightwell getting that one yard to the Arizona 48 with 12:25 left in regulation. Gunnell completed three consecutive passes for 42 yards before Brightwell ran into the end zone from 10 yards for the score to give Arizona a 20-17 lead with 10:51 left.
“The first thing you look at with a true freshman quarterback is poise, how he handles situations,” Sumlin said. “I thought he was very mature how he went about his business. The big thing is zero turnovers. We didn’t give them the ball.
“This was a great experience — prime-time TV, true freshman winning his first Pac-12 game. He has a great future.”
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.