Arizona Football

Alamo Bowl: Arizona rallies to beat Oklahoma, reaches 10 wins in a season for fourth time

Arizona’s defense celebrates one of its six takeaways (Gilbert Alcaraz/Special to

Arizona relied on Noah Fifita’s fortitude and its opportunistic defense with three interceptions and three fumble recoveries, including one returned for a touchdown, to rally from an 11-point deficit to beat Oklahoma 38-24 Thursday night in the Alamo Bowl at San Antonio.

The six takeaways led to 28 points for the Wildcats, who ended the season on a seven-game winning streak.

In Jedd Fisch’s first season in 2021, when the Wildcats were 1-11, they had six takeaways all season.

“Together, I think as a team we just played great football, but more than anything, I would say two years ago we started this journey, and we were coming off — we got hired here, we went 1-11, and everybody believed in what we were trying to get done,” Fisch said in the postgame press conference.

Arizona safety Gunner Maldonado had an interception and two fumble recoveries, including one returned 87 yards for a touchdown with 21 seconds left in the third quarter.

Fifita weathered five sacks by No. 12 Oklahoma to finish with 354 passing yards while completing 24 of 38 attempts with two touchdowns and an interception.

The 14th-ranked Wildcats finish 10-3, only the fourth team in program history to reach the 10-victory mark.

The 1993 team finished 10-2 with a Fiesta Bowl win over Miami, the 1998 team was 12-1 with a win over Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl and the 2014 team went 10-4 with a Pac-12 South title.

“Just for this team, the amount of players we have that joined us while we were going through the adversity, for them to be able to experience this now is pretty amazing,” said Fisch, who went from 1-11 to 5-7 to 10-3 in his first three seasons.

Maldonado’s fumble-recovery return — caused by a hard-hitting tackle by safety Dalton Johnson — for a touchdown toward the end of the third quarter was the jolt Arizona needed after the offense’s previous six possessions ended this way: interception, punt, punt, punt, punt and punt.

“Man, that was just an amazing play from Dalton right here,” said Maldonado, the Alamo Bowl Defensive MVP. “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, and we got in the end zone.”

Fifita’s 2-yard conversion pass to Montana LemoniousCraig after Maldonado’s touchdown cut the lead to 24-21.

On Oklahoma’s next possession, Arizona safety Martell Irby, who earlier caused a fumble, intercepted a pass by true freshman Jackson Arnold that set up a 37-yard field goal by Tyler Loop that tied the game at 24 with 12:49 left.

Arnold, thrusted into the starting assignment after Dillon Gabriel transferred to Oregon, finished with three interceptions and a fumble.

Arizona’s defense forced Oklahoma into a punt with 9:55 remaining.

Fifita led the Wildcats on a scoring drive that included five completions in five attempts, including a 57-yard touchdown strike to Jacob Cowing that gave Arizona a 31-24 lead with 5:28 remaining. Cowing sprinted to the end zone, catching the pass in stride, picking up a key block by Lemonious-Craig along the way.

Cowing’s score set a program record for receiving touchdowns in a season with 13.

“As soon as I caught the ball, I turned, looked up field, saw Montana block for me,” Cowing said. “If it wasn’t for Montana getting that block for me, I don’t think I would have got in the end zone.

“I appreciate him for doing that and looking out for me to get in that end zone.”

Arnold was then sacked by Isaiah Ward, who forced the fumble that was recovered by Jacob Kongaika at the Oklahoma 19 with 3:43 left.

D.J. Williams immediately followed with a 19-yard touchdown run, the Wildcats’ longest gain on the ground of the game, to increase the lead to 38-24.

“It was phenomenal — six turnovers in a game is a dream, number one, and we scored 28 points off of the turnovers, so that helps,” Fisch said. “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.

“We’ve got one of the greatest stories this season with the defensive turnaround from a year ago until today, and the fact that we have so many players returning again just sets the standard and raises the standard.

“And Coach (Johnny) Nansen and Coach (Duane) Akina and Coach (Jason) Kaufusi and Coach (Chuck) Cecil, Coach (John) Richardson, amazing job of getting these guys in position to play hard, believe in the system, and then be able to make the plays like they did today.”

The 17-0 margin in the fourth quarter was a bookend to a 13-0 start into the second quarter.

Arizona outscored opponents 128-53 in the fourth quarter this season.

“The guys just kept competing,” Fisch said. “I really believe our strength staff does an amazing job of making an emphasis of the fourth quarter is when we win games.”

Fifita completed a 35-yard touchdown pass to Cowing in that early stretch when Arizona mounted a 13-0 lead.

Cowing, the Alamo Bowl offensive MVP, finished with 152 yards on seven receptions.

Tetairoa McMillan has more than 2,000 receiving yards in his first two seasons with Arizona (Gilbert Alcaraz/Special to

Tetairoa McMillan had 10 catches for 160 yards.

“I mean, the year that I had is all because of my teammates and my coaches,” said McMillan, a surefire NFL prospect who finished with 1,402 receiving yards on 90 catches with 10 touchdowns. “The year that I had is just a reflection of them, and without them, I wouldn’t be here. Just the trust they had in me to make plays, to be there when I needed to be is the reason why I’m here.”

Fifita’s never-surrender performance despite the sacks and Arizona having to punt on five straight possessions was indicative of how he led the Wildcats after taking over the starting role following Jayden de Laura’s ankle injury four games into the season.

“There was a lot of times that I was struggling and our offense was struggling because of me and nobody flinched, nobody doubted me, so I really appreciate that,” Fifita said. “Being able to trust Coach Fisch, trust play calls, trust our preparation, that’s the biggest thing I’ve been emphasizing since I’ve taken over the job.”

Noah Fifita felt pressure from Oklahoma most of the game but continued to perform well (Gilbert Alcaraz/Special to

Oklahoma scored 24 unanswered points when Arizona’s offense and defense started to struggle.

Arnold gained more confidence that led to touchdown passes of 10 yards to Nic Anderson and 63 yards to Brenen Thompson, enabling the Sooners to forge ahead 24-13 with 6:59 left in the third quarter.

Arnold completed 26 of 45 pass attempts for 361 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions.

Oklahoma was on the verge of scoring again late in the third quarter when Maldonado came up with his 87-yard fumble-recovery return for a touchdown.

The Sooners had the ball at the Arizona 23. Arnold completed the pass to Jalil Farooq, who was plastered by Johnson, jarring the ball loose for Maldonado to catch in the air.

Earlier in the third quarter, Oklahoma had the ball with a first-and-goal at the 5, but Arizona’s defense stuffed the Sooners in three straight rush attempts. Oklahoma was forced to kick a 22-yard field goal by Zach Schmit with 6:59 left in the quarter that proved to be their last score of the game.

Arizona’s defense shut down Arnold and the Sooners from there.

“You don’t win the game in the first quarter and you don’t win the game in the second quarter and you don’t win the game in the third quarter,” Fisch said. “If you learn that and you believe that, then these guys go out there and they don’t flinch. They know that the fourth quarter is going to be the time that they’ve got to be at their best.”

Now, it’s on to the Big 12 with Arizona hoping to play more big games in Texas, including the conference championship game in Arlington.

“I told our guys we’re going to enjoy tonight, okay,” Fisch said. “We’re going to put an end to this season. Then we’ll take a little break and we’ll come back, and then we’ll start preparing for the Big 12.

“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. We’ll come back in January and start working our way through the process of getting ready for the next conference.

“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?”

FOLLOW @JAVIERJMORALES ON TWITTER! 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, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports,, 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. He became an educator in 2016 and is presently a special education teacher at Sunnyside High School in the Sunnyside Unified School District.

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