Wildcats hoping to avoid letdown
Fans danced in the aisles, players hugged on the field, coaches talked afterward about how it was a character-builder.
Beating then-No. 9 Iowa last weekend was a huge step for Arizona, a win the Wildcats hope was a key moment that launches the program toward its goal of reaching elite status.
Now it's time to build on that marquee win, starting Saturday at home against California.
Fail to beat the Bears and, well, the Iowa game wasn't quite the watershed event the Wildcats hope it was.
''Every win makes the next game bigger, so it's actually more important than Iowa,'' Wildcats receiver Dave Roberts said. ''If we lose to Cal, then the Iowa game doesn't mean anything. We'd be right back kind of where we had been, so it's actually more important.''
The win over Iowa was the kind of attention-getter the Wildcats had been searching for since coach Mike Stoops arrived in Tucson six years ago.
Beating a Top 10 team from a conference like the Big Ten validated Arizona's team-on-the-rise status to the rest of the country, proved the Wildcats deserve the national spotlight that's slowly been shifting southwest.
The win also was a character-tester, a chance to see if all those past collapse-under-pressure losses - like the 33-0 debacle against Nebraska in last year's Holiday Bowl - were no longer the defining characteristic of this program.
The Wildcats passed, coming up with a big play on special teams, a gutty scoring drive after blowing a 20-point lead and a defensive stand for a 34-27 victory that had the fans dancing and the expectations ratcheted to levels not seen in the desert for a while.
The win moved Arizona up 10 spots in The Associated Press poll to 14th, the program's highest ranking since opening the 1999 preseason poll at No. 4.
If the Wildcats can learn anything from the previous high ranking, it's what happened after: they lost the opener, dropped to No. 15 and never got any higher. Arizona finished a disappointing 6-6 that season, starting a nine-year streak without a winning record.
That win over Iowa was great, but the Wildcats need to make sure they don't get caught up in the hoopla or they'll get run over again.
''We haven't accomplished anything, so I don't really know why they would (celebrate too long),'' Stoops said. ''Iowa wasn't going to define us one way or another. The accumulation of the whole 12 games will define who you are. It certainly was a character-building experience, but that is all it was.''
There was a time when Arizona couldn't have handled the pressure of a game like Iowa, much less the expectations that follow.
Over the past few years, though, the Wildcats have shown signs that their spotlight-wilting days may be coming to an end.
The first came in 2006, when a still-average Arizona team pulled off a late-season win over No. 8 Cal in Tucson. The next season included a home win over second-ranked Oregon, while 2008 had another win over a ranked Cal team and a victory against No. 17 Brigham Young in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Last season, Arizona beat Oregon State in Corvallis and ended the regular season with a victory over No. 20 USC. The lopsided loss to 20th-ranked Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl was a letdown, but the win over Iowa may have erased those bad memories - as long as the Wildcats don't blow it right away with a loss to Cal.
''We've been good, we've played big-time games. We're getting used to it,'' Stoops said. ''The thing I probably took away from that thing (Iowa), was we've matured so much in our program it was no big deal to our players.''
Now it's time to do it again or they'll be right back where they started.