The New Mexico Lobos took an early 3-0 lead, lost it before the first quarter was over, but dogged the Arizona Wildcats the rest of the way through the Gildan New Mexico Bowl, not conceding the loss until UA’s sophomore cornerback Cam Denson intercepted Austin Apodaca’s final pass attempt with 30 seconds left to play to seal the 45-37 victory.
This game had plenty of fan excitement, as the two teams took turns scoring – often at the pace of a video game. Most of the 30,209 fans that showed up for one of the first bowl games of the season were there to root on the Lobos, who were enjoying the advantage of what was basically a home game for them.
After a sluggish first quarter that ended 7-3, the offenses for both teams exploded in the next two periods. A furious second quarter that included a 95-yard pass play for a New Mexico touchdown saw Arizona put up three touchdowns and New Mexico two as the two teams combined for almost 350 yards of offense in that period alone. Arizona’s junior wide receiver, Cayleb Jones, racked up 182 yards in receptions before halftime.
Together, the two teams piled up 1,025 yards for the game.
There were more fireworks in the third quarter that included an interception that Arizona returned immediately for a score, a surprise onside kick the Lobos converted into a touchdown, and four more combined TDs.
And, at one point in the fourth quarter, the Lobos racked up two touchdowns in the span of three minutes.
Arizona was generally favored by a couple of scores, but New Mexico gave the Cats all they handle. The rebuilding Lobos dug themselves out of an 18-point hole in the third quarter to close to within five points with 13:52 still to play, but stalled as Apodaca, the back-up quarterback, scored the team’s final points on a four-yard run to close the gap to 42-37. The redshirt junior stepped in when the starter, Lamar Jordan, left with a knee injury as the third quarter closed.
The Lobos’ triple-option offense was on the field for 40:52, more than double the Cats’ time of possession. But Arizona made the most of its minutes, thanks in large part to having a reasonably health team for one of the few games this season. Plagued by injuries, the Wildcats have suffered through injuries to 42 different starters spread over a dozen games without a bye week to provide recovery time.
Starting quarterback Anu Solomon returned to the line-up after missing the last game with an injury, but it was probably the defense that benefited the most from getting many of its key players healthy again. The one that got the most attention was Scooby Wright III, the All-American linebacker who won the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, Lombardi Award, and Chuck Bednarik Award last season. He played only two games during the regular season, leaving the opener with an injured left knee and then coming back for the Sept. 26 UCLA game, only to fall again, this time to an ankle injury.
After missing so much time, he obviously wan’t in his usual top game shape yesterday, but still made his presence felt, finishing with 16 tackles and two sacks.
And shortly after the game he announced his plans to forego his senior season to enter the NFL draft. The Wildcats will have to go on next year without the man who is considered by many to be the best middle linebacker in the history of the program.
Solomon, too, came ready to play yesterday. The redshirt sophomore completed 13 of his 24 pass attempts for 329 yards and was named the game’s Most Valuable Player.
This was the fourth consecutive bowl appearance under fourth-year head coach Rich Rodriguez, who has won three of those games.
“We had a lot of adversity this year,” Rodriguez reminded the media after the game, “and to finish it off with a win on the road, a bowl win, a road win, and for our seniors to finish with a winning record (7-6) is pretty neat for them.”
No one mentioned the game before, when his seniors lost the Territorial Cup to Arizona State. Isn’t it interesting how a bowl win always helps to dull the memory of an otherwise disappointing season?
(Photo: Arizona Athletics)