In the high altitude in Albuquerque, Matt Scott, Arizona’s Houdini, made another appearance.
Voila! Or was it ta-da? Even Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said you had to see it to believe it, adding that it was his “latest and greatest (win) so far.”
Did you expect anything less in a year of the-arm-is-quicker-than-the-eye moments for Scott, Arizona’s senior quarterback who so often one-upped himself in this unexpected season for the Wildcats? On Saturday, he produced one last magic moment to end his college career and start this year’s bowl season.
Arizona’s two-minute drill, led by its senior quarterback, was so good that it scored twice to give the Wildcats an improbable — no, unbelievable — 49-48 win over Nevada in the New Mexico Bowl.
Scott, who finished with 369 yards and three touchdowns en route to offensive MVP honors, worked his magic at the end. He threw two touchdown passes in the final 42 seconds, with the first drive starting with less than two minutes left and the second coming after an onside kick recovery. Arizona trailed by 17 entering the fourth quarter.
Why not end the season on a dramatic note? It’s been that way all season for the Wildcats. Heck, it’s been that way for Scott’s career. At one point he thought about transferring, and he eventually redshirted as a senior in order to make this his fifth and final year.
“It changes a lot,” Scott said of his thoughts on his career. “I’ve been through a lot here at the university, and it’s been a tough time for me. My career could have gone a couple of different ways, but I decided to stay and compete and try to get better. I didn’t quit.
“There was a lot of perseverance. It was hard at times.”
There were also a lot of big wins toward the end, with Saturday’s being the biggest.
For a moment, it looked like the only thing Arizona would win was the coin toss. The Wildcats looked that bad early in falling behind 21-0.
But when Marquis Flowers stepped in front of a Cody Fajardo pass with just seconds left in the game, it assured Arizona would get its eighth win of the season. Not since 2009 had UA won as many games, finishing an identical 8-5. It was UA’s first bowl victory since 2008.
Flowers, named the game’s defensive MVP, called the interception one of the biggest of his career. It clearly was one of Arizona’s highlights of the season, one filled with big-game heroics and late-game disappointments. On Saturday, it was all that in a mixed bag.
The pick also came just a couple of minutes of real time after Flowers gave Arizona hope when he recovered the onside kick that give Arizona, trailing by six with no timeouts left, the ball back with just 40 seconds to play.
“When it was in the air, I said, ‘Come on, don’t drop this,'” Flowers said on radio after the game. “But big-time players make big-time plays. I just kept that in my head.”
As did Scott, who engineered the remarkable comeback to cap a career that was revitalized this season under first-year coach Rodriguez.
“You talk about being sharp and accurate … Matt delivered,” Rodriguez said on his postgame show. “He was that in the last two drives. It’s unbelievable and what you hope for from a quarterback in that situation. Matt delivered again.
“We are proud of all our seniors.”
Indeed, it was a total team effort. How could it not have been with Arizona, as usual, playing a number of walk-ons at key positions?
The UA defense couldn’t tackle Fajardo or running back Stefphon Jefferson, who rushed for a game-high 180 yards. Fajardo had 255 yards passing and 139 yards rushing, throwing for three touchdowns and running for one.
Neither team showed much defense. There were 1,234 yards of total offense and 70 first downs, with Nevada finishing with an all-time bowl record of 39.
Arizona’s troubles started early and reappeared often. The Wildcats trailed 21-0 just 10 minutes into the game before finding their footing — and their offense — and cutting the deficit to 31-28 at halftime.
Adding to the embarrassment were Arizona players Cody Ippolito and Devin Hood, who were seen on television throwing punches at one another on the sidelines. Both were eventually sent to the locker room and did not return.
UA again looked to be all but done in the third quarter, when Nevada (7-6) scored 14 straight points to pull away for a 45-28 lead. But Rodriguez said the Wildcats maintained a never-give-up attitude, as they had all season.
“We didn’t play well, and you have to give them credit, but we just hung in there,” Rodriguez said. “It’s been a very resilient group. I don’t know how many guys we have banged up on defense and how many we have rolling in and out of there. But they never quit and kept battling. Guys who are studs for us, like Matt Scott, came through for us in the end.”
Throw in running back Ka’Deem Carey and receiver Austin Hill, both sophomores who had more than their fair share of big plays. Carey finished with 171 yards rushing and three touchdowns, giving him 1,929 yards for the season and extending UA’s all-time single-season record.
He just missed out on becoming the 16th college player ever to reach 2,000 yards in a season, but is likely to finish as the national leader, with Jefferson the only player currently within 150 yards.
Carey’s three touchdowns gave him 23 this season and another school record, which had been held by Art Luppino (1954). He also became the school’s all-time single-season record holder for all-purpose yards with 2,251.
Meanwhile, Hill was targeted often on UA’s late scoring drives. He finished with eight catches for 175 yards and two touchdowns, one of which was a 63-yard score on the first play of the fourth quarter that started the comeback.
Hill and Carey are two of many underclassmen who should give Rodriguez and the Wildcats something to build on next year.
To wit: linebacker C.J. Dozier, a freshman, had a team-leading 15 tackles; junior Shaquille Richardson had a key interception; Flowers, who had 10 tackles, is a junior, as is inside linebacker Jake Fischer, the defensive leader.
And though the defense gave up 659 total yards, it did hold in the red zone with less than two minutes left, forcing Nevada to kick a field goal for a 13-point lead and setting up the wild final 1:48.
“I think the guys see that you have to play to the last play,” Rodriguez said. “We said all year long to keep playing in the fourth quarter and keep battling and good things will happen. Even when we were down, the guys understood that.
“I didn’t think there in the end we’d be able to pull it off, but we did.”