Wide right was, well, right on for Arizona Saturday night.
And now Arizona, after defeating UCLA 20-17 at Arizona Stadium, has won three straight games for the first time since 2017. Doesn’t that seem like an eternity?
Well, here Arizona is – 3-1 and on its way to face Colorado for the Pac-12 Conference South lead next week. Each is 1-0 in conference play.
Arizona has long been overdue with some good luck and confidence. It picked up each on Saturday.
Who would have thought that after UA’s season-opening loss to Hawaii back in August?
Saturday, it came down to a freshman quarterback (Grant Gunnell) coming in and doing what he had to do. And, to a senior kicker (JJ Molson) going in and failing what he had to do. Molson missed a 39 yarder with 34 seconds left in the fourth quarter, just moments after hitting what would have been a game-tying attempt. But Arizona called a last-second timeout to attempt to rattle Molson.
“You’ve got them in your pocket,” said UA coach Kevin Sumlin, talking about the timeout. “I can’t take them home and bring them to the next game. But probably the biggest decision was not to use the last timeout on that next kick. That’s all luck of the draw.
“I’ve also had times where I’ve called it and the guy missed it and made the next one. It’s just the opposite comment from you guys and the fans: What are you doing?”
Saturday night – about two hours before the game – news broke UA starting quarterback Khalil Tate (ankle, hamstring) would not play and running back J.J. Taylor would sit out as well.
“We’ve got confidence in him,” Sumlin said of Gunnell, “otherwise, we wouldn’t have recruited him.”
Despite some minor hiccups here and there, Gunnell was good enough in his first start, giving UA and its fans a glimpse into the future. He became UA’s first true-freshman quarterback to win a first start since Oct. 29, 2005 when Willie Tuitama helped beat Oregon State. Gunnell also became the first UA QB to throw for more than 300 yards (352) in a debut since Anu Solomon did it on Aug. 29, 2014 vs. Nevada-Las Vegas.
All the talk this week will be about the health of Tate and the future of Gunnell given the situation. It was too early to tell Saturday night.
“Don’t know yet. We’ll see what happens on Monday,” Sumlin said, of Taylor and Tate’s status.
“We’re not going to put those guys in harm’s way with the type of injuries that they have. Those guys can be explosive players. When you have ankles or leg injuries like that, what you don’t want is for something that just nags on (them) for the whole year. We’ll assess that throughout the week.”
Until then, Arizona will move on with Gunnell, who stepped in admirably and confidently throughout the night, save for some short throws in what seemingly would have been a tough situation for most, if not all, freshmen.
“The No. 1 thing was poise – how he handled situations,” Sumlin said. “I thought was very mature about how he handled things, how he went about his business. The second thing, probably the biggest, is zero turnovers. He didn’t give the other team the ball.
“We talked about it at the hotel before we came over: Hey, look, it’s not on Grant. It’s on the 10 other guys that are on the field to make this thing work tonight. We’ve gotta block. We’ve gotta protect. We’ve gotta hang on to the ball. We’ve gotta fight for every yard. And that’s what they did.”
Sumlin said it was all about a “team effort” and truly it was given the defense did what it had to in as much it didn’t allow an opponent 20 or more points in back-to-back games against power conference teams in nine years.
“I just feel like our defense and our whole team are all on a good pace right now,” said Tony Fields, who had 10 tackles. “Everybody’s moving forward. We’re all taking steps forward, getting better every game, and I feel like if we can keep doing that and keep being consistent, we can win out (in) the Pac.”
There’s that all-important confidence UA needs. Goes to show you what three consecutive – no matter how it happened – wins do for a team.