This time, the plane ride home will be a joyous one.
The Arizona football team is no longer winless away from Arizona Stadium. Not after coming from behind to beat host Utah 34-24 at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday night.
UA, now 1-3 on the road, is 7-4 overall and is essentially guaranteed an invite to a bowl game next month.
“Finally, we get to enjoy the trip home,” Wildcats coach Rich Rodriguez said on his postgame radio show. “I told them that normally we get to enjoy (the win) for 24 hours, but considering what we have next, we’ll enjoy it for 12 hours and move on.”
Arizona faces Arizona State on Friday night at home in each team’s regular-season finale.
On Saturday night, Arizona played with moxie and toughness in the second half, gaining its footing on a cold, wet night in Salt Lake City. In fact, the Wildcats were exactly what Rodriguez told them they had to be before the game: “resilient.”
He added that the team had “really good focus” in getting the win and gutting it out.
“I was really proud of our guys. They were really focused and really into the game,” Rodriguez said. “We ran the football well. And our defense had stops when they had to. We’re hanging on.”
Arizona had no choice, fighting through injuries to earn its fourth win in five games. At one point, UA had as many as five former walk-ons playing and having an impact.
“It was scary, too,” Rodriguez said. “Not to diminish being a walk-on, but there were times when there were five walk-ons playing on defense.
“Our defensive staff was hanging on. I’m really proud of our kids. We know we’ve got some work to do over there. It just seems like it was snowballing on us injury-wise. We hung in there and made just enough plays.”
Running back Ka’Deem Carey had another big day, rushing for 204 yards on 26 carries just a week after rushing for a Pac-12-record 366 yards. Rodriguez said Carey was very good despite “not being 100 percent.” It’s not clear why he wasn’t.
And quarterback Matt Scott did what he had to do in his return to the lineup after missing last week’s game with a concussion. He passed for 160 yards and the go-ahead score in the fourth quarter while going 12 for 27. He also rushed for a touchdown.
The Wildcats certainly appeared to have energy. They may have been helped by a bit by the pregame dance that even Rodriguez participated in.
“I don’t’ have much rhythm, but it was a little thing we had at practice all week,” Rodriguez said. “The guys had a lot of fun with it. We did it in the hotel (on Friday night). We did it in the locker room (Saturday). I can’t quite dance like they do, and I don’t want them dancing (all the time), but I do want them to have energy, especially on the road. I thought they brought it tonight.”
For Arizona, everything came together in the fourth quarter.
The defense came through on two fourth-down play, one coming on a Utah fake punt that Marquis Flowers snuffed out.
The offense scored two touchdowns to tie the score and added a late field goal to seal the win.
And a nicely placed punt from Kyle Dugandzic pinned Utah at its own 5-yard line in the middle of the fourth quarter, flipping field position.
It was great timing for the Wildcats, who struggled most of the game with Utah’s size and strength on both sides of the ball. Those advantages looked to be too much for Arizona until the offense got in rhythm in the second half.
“Our guys have totally bought into the tempo part,” Rodriguez said. “We’re trying to go as fast as the officials will let us. I thought that was a big key for us.”
Arizona was helped when a personal foul — hands to the face — was called after a third-and-1 stop by Utah in the red zone early in the fourth quarter with the Wildcats trailing 24-17. On the following play, Daniel Jenkins scored on a 2-yard yard run on his second effort.
That drive came after Utah had scored three straight touchdowns to take the seven-point lead.
On Utah’s next possession, the Utes attempted a fake punt that was stopped short on an alert and impressive play by Flowers. Four plays later, sophomore receiver Austin Hill scored on an 18-yard reception to give Arizona the winning touchdown.
For the first time in school history, Arizona has a 3,000-yard passer (3,008 yards for Scott), a 1,500-yard rusher (1,585 yards for Carey) and a 1,000-yard receiver (1,023 yards for Hill).