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Gimino: Pep talk, kick return sparked UA’s crucial win

Arizona's Mike Thomas is lifted by Joe Longacre after Thomas' touchdown with 2:02 left in last year's 48-41 victory over Washington.

Arizona's Mike Thomas is lifted by Joe Longacre after Thomas' touchdown with 2:02 left in last year's 48-41 victory over Washington.

The coaches were working the sideline. Arizona had just fallen behind by 15 points at Washington. The game was on the line. Jobs, too.

“You guys want to just quit, or do you want to finish and win the game and be heroes?”

That was the message running back Nic Grigsby recalls hearing from the coaches, but the Wildcats seemingly had little reason to believe.

They had never overcome a fourth-quarter deficit under head coach Mike Stoops. They were 2-6 and had lost three in a row, including a puzzling home defeat to Stanford a week earlier.

It was Oct. 27, 2007, and Stoops’ four-year mark was about to fall to 16-28. It’s not a stretch to think his record at Arizona was about to be frozen in time right there. He might not have made it to the next game, against UCLA.

So the rumors go.

“I don’t know if it’s true, but I have certainly heard that,” said offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes. “It was pretty dire.”

Dykes was in his first season at Arizona, having imported a high-scoring spread offense from Texas Tech. A 15-point deficit was nothing to the Red Raiders.

That’s what he told the players when the score was 41-26 with 12 minutes, 52 seconds left.

“With what we do offensively, you have a chance to come back from deficits,” Dykes said.

“Fortunately, I have been around this offense long enough to have seen it.

“The players hadn’t been. It was important for them to know somebody thought they could get it done.”

Stoops might go on to great things at Arizona and elsewhere. Dykes and Mark Stoops, both young coordinators, have promising careers and designs on being head coaches.

Someday, they might all look back at what happened next as the series of plays that helped make things possible.

And then they will pick up the phone and thank Mike Thomas.

It helped somewhat that Washington had just missed an extra point, but the play that gave Arizona life/hope/reason to believe was Thomas’ 45-yard kick return to the Washington 46.

“It wasn’t a good vibe on the sideline,” said kicker Jason Bondzio. “Then we made a few big plays and it turned around.”

Five plays later, on third-and-13, Willie Tuitama connected for a 33-yard touchdown throw to Terrell Turner.

Bad news was that Arizona’s defense had been unable to stop quarterback Jake Locker most of the day, so there was still much work to do.

“That was ugly last year at Washington,” said linebacker Ronnie Palmer. “Our offense definitely saved us. We couldn’t get it together, basically.

“We were arguing the whole game. We were discombobulated on the sideline.

“We had to figure out something to stop their offense.”

The Wildcats got a break when the Huskies fumbled a handoff exchange on the next possession. Linebacker Spencer Larsen recovered at the Washington 30.

Arizona again scored quickly, tying the game on a 2-point conversion pass to Thomas.

It continued to snowball with a defensive stop, an 80-yard drive – capped by a 27-yard touchdown pass to Thomas – and an interception by Antoine Cason that sealed the victory.

“We went up there in a very desperate situation and won a game that felt like it was slipping away,” Stoops said. “It really kind of changed the momentum of our season.”

Arizona followed with a win against UCLA and a nationally televised Thursday night victory over Oregon. The flurry propelled Stoops into a fifth season.

Which brings us to this week’s game at Washington.

Arizona is sitting at 3-1, looking hard at 5-1.

The wounded Huskies should be road kill. The Wildcats then go to Stanford – not easy, but put it in the “very winnable” category.

This has the potential to be a big season, but more growth needs to come.

Arizona, as evidenced by its loss at New Mexico, isn’t good enough to play poorly, without passion, and win.

In that 36-28 loss, not enough players stepped up to overcome a late deficit. The Washington game from last season remains the only fourth-quarter comeback of the Stoops era.

“We’ve started to realize we can score and score fast when we need to,” Dykes said.

“But what I think has been kind of holding back the offense is just not knowing how good we’re capable of being, while understanding at the same time how bad we can be as well. We have seen both spectrums this year.”

At least there is a “this year” for the coaches.

“It would have been devastating,” Palmer said, reflecting on what a loss at Washington would have meant. “It just wouldn’t have been good for our program.”

Anthony Gimino’s e-mail: agimino@tucsoncitizen.com

Arizona's Jason Parker stops Washington quarterback Jake Locker at the 1-yard line in the second half last season in Seattle.

Arizona's Jason Parker stops Washington quarterback Jake Locker at the 1-yard line in the second half last season in Seattle.

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COMEBACK CATS

On Oct. 27, 2007, Arizona trailed Washington 41-26 with 12:52 left in the game. How UA rallied:

11:32: Terrell Turner 33-yard TD pass from Willie Tuitama (Jason Bondzio kick): 5 plays, 46 yards. UW, 41-33

9:24: Mike Thomas 2-yard pass from Tuitama (Thomas pass from Tuitama), 4 plays, 30 yards. 41-41

2:02: Thomas 27-yard pass from Tuitama (Bondzio kick), 11 plays, 80 yards. UA, 48-41

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