In the end, it was the defense that saved the game for the Arizona. It was the defense that saved the season.
The D-E-F-E-N-S-E. Or better yet, the defense? Really?
Imagine that, the one thing that was Arizona’s criticism for all but one or two games (Friday’s included) saved it all. If you think I’m waxing poetic on the importance of Arizona’s defense in UA’s 38-35 thrilling win over Arizona State, well, figure that 5-7 overall looks much better than 4-8. And a one-game win streak is more cosmetic than a six-game losing streak to the rivals from the north.
Arizona’s defense came through twice late in the fourth quarter and count them, one, two, three, four, five times overall.
“That was awesome,” UA coach Jedd Fisch said in postgame press conference. “… In the end, we felt like, we were going to run to win. And we were going to get takeaways on defense and that’s what we did.”
If that was the game plan going into the game on Friday afternoon, then it worked to perfection. And now, after six years, the Territorial Cup is back in the hands of Arizona.
It was a win so big a few thousand fans eventually found a way to rush the field in jubilation. They had exorcised the Devils – literally and figuratively – after what felt like an eternity. Seemingly it took every second of the game to do so.
“It was a great feeling in that locker room,” Fisch said. “Our players deserve that victory and have earned it from how hard they work.”
Desert Rising? Well, it appears as such even if it wasn’t pretty at times throughout the year. Hell, I even said if Fisch could win five games this season – however he did it – he should be voted mayor of Tucson and while you’re at it Coach of the Year in the Pac-12. Maybe he’ll get some votes, maybe he won’t but he should. Vegas had Arizona’s victory total at 2.5 and when is Vegas ever wrong?
The Wildcats surpassed that – times two. And will finish much higher than the near bottom of the Pac-12 Conference.
“The goal is to have better swarms,” Fisch said when asked how the fans swarming the field felt. “The crowd was great … but next year lets sell out. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun. We’re going to have our whole offense back, which I’m excited about. And (we) have the opportunity to be really good.”
And the defense will get better. It has young players who learned on the fly this year and will have more experience. Clearly, this was a game to build on. A HUGE game to build on.
Consider the final two defensive stops by UA when the Cats needed it most. The outcome of the game depended on it.
On ASU’s final possession and 1:16 left in the game, quarterback Trenton Bourget was hit by Jacob Manu causing him to throw a fluttering ball that Isaiah Taylor got under for Arizona’s fifth – and final – turnover recovered.
End of game. Finally.
But before that final game-saving stop, Arizona’s defense came up big. After stopping UA on a fourth-and-1, ASU was driving for either the game-winning touchdown or a game-tying field goal.
But Jacob Manu got to Bourguet as did Jalen Harris creating a fumble.
It was Arizona’s final one-two punch.
Finally, after going back and forth for most of the game – one that saw the lead change six times – had come down to two stops by UA.
Of course, the offense played a huge part. As Fisch said, he planned on turning his running game loose (for whatever that was worth) and see what it could do. It did plenty as Michael Wiley ran wild for a career-high 214 yards and three touchdowns. He had a 51-yard TD to start the game and added a 71-yard TD run and a 12-yard TD run.
“At practice I told him, hey, if we hit this (play), this could be a 75-yard run, can you handle that?” Fisch told Wiley earlier in the week. “He said ‘yeah.’ I wasn’t actually expecting that. It was a (71)-yard run, and it was one heck of a run.”
Arizona’s plan had worked – run then pass. Or pass when you had to. Arizona quarterback Jayden de Laura was okay with the strategy.
“It’s good, whatever Coach asks (of) me,” de Laura said. “Go out there and just execute it. I have a lot of faith in our O-line and our running backs, whoever’s in the game. Just give them the ball and let them go to work. Get the ball in the playmakers’ hands.”
Arizona did – and now they have the Territorial Cup back.
“Just the emotions from the past few years and just the results that we had, this one feels great,” Wiley said. “Especially to win at home, get the Cup back here. And for the future it’s got to stay here.”