This was it. The win over Iowa was the signature game that Mike Stoops has been yearning for since taking over the University of Arizona football program seven years ago, when it was coming off a 2-10 season.
The Wildcats’ 34-27 victory over the Hawkeyes, ranked No. 9 in the nation going into the game in Tucson, has propelled them from just barely ranked at No. 24 in the Associated Press poll all the way up to No. 14.
It has been 12 years since a Wildcat team has been ranked this high. They finished the 1998 season ranked No. 4 after hanging in the top 10 for the last six weeks of the season.
Stoops, who has at least one win over a ranked opponent every year of his tenure at UofA, had identical 8-5 records the past two seasons – but hasn’t quite been able to get over the hump. His 2009 squad suffered a huge setback when it got an invitation to the Holiday Bowl, only to be embarrassed in a 33-0 loss at the hands of Nebraska.
But hopes among the Wildcat faithful were renewed this season, as the Cats started 2-0 while outscoring its opponents by a combined 93-8 total points.
Junior quarterback, Nick Foles, came into the Iowa game ranked 11th nationally in passing efficiency, completing 83 percent of his passes, and had piled up 574 yards in the air in just two games. Arizona’s offense is one of the most explosive in the country this year, with a star running back in Nic Grigsby who is healthy again and had put five touchdowns on the board in preparation for the showdown with Iowa.
And the Cats have a defense which hadn’t allowed a touchdown prior to the Iowa game, and had held each of its first two opponents to under 200 yards.
BUT… Arizona’s first two opponents were the University of Toledo, a member of the Mid-American Conference, and The Citadel, an FCS team that was picked to finish last in the Southern Conference this season.
Arizona needed to beat a respected team like Iowa, a member of the Big Ten that was ranked among the top 10 teams in the nation and had aspirations of playing for the national championship this year.
But the Cats showed from the get-go that they weren’t intimidated by the big, bad Hawkeyes and asserted themselves early by running up a 20-point lead before heading to the locker room for halftime.
David Roberts blocked a punt to set the stage for what would be an assault on a good Iowa defense. David Douglas scored from the five after the blocked punt, Travis Cobb ran the length of the field for a 100-yard kickoff return, and Trevin Wade intercepted a Ricky Stanzi pass and took it 85 yards for another score.
The Hawkeyes went into the locker room in a state of shock.
And the Cats didn’t fold when the Hawkeyes made a run in the second half. With Iowa just a touchdown behind at 27-21, Foles engineered a fourth-quarter drive, completing 4-of-5 pass attempts, and hitting William Wright in the end zone to seal the win with just 3:57 on the clock.
Foles finished the game with 303 yards on 28-of-39 passing, and two touchdowns.
But perhaps the most impressive display of determination and grit came at the very end, when the Arizona defense stepped up big time. Stanzi had time left on the clock to run a final series for the win, but was smothered by the Cats’ defense, which made four straight sacks to put a huge exclamation point on a game that was hugely important.
It was a fitting way to conclude what has to be one of the biggest non-conference wins in the history of the program.
Now, thanks to the win over Iowa, the only team in the Pac-10 that is ranked above the Wildcats is Oregon, which is holding down the No. 5 spot this week.
But the strength of the Pac-10 is apparent in the fact that, in addition to Arizona and Oregon, there are three other teams ranked in the Top 25: Stanford (16), USC (20), and Oregon State (24).
Now the Wildcats have to navigate its way through that conference to complete the turnaround that is underway.
And that starts next weekend when 2-1 California comes calling.
Surf’s up, dude!