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Gimino: UA’s win over Cal is biggest in the Stoops era

Offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes congratulates QB Willie Tuitama after UA's 42-27 win over No. 25 Cal.

Offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes congratulates QB Willie Tuitama after UA's 42-27 win over No. 25 Cal.

Arizona football coach Mike Stoops ended his postgame news conference Saturday night with a quick quip. “Write something nice about me this week,” he urged.

OK, then. Here goes.

Congratulations on your biggest victory. You earned it.

Arizona has defeated better teams in 4 1/2 seasons under Stoops. It has defeated higher-ranked teams. It has had victories that sent greater shock waves through the college football world.

I have seen fans deliriously swarm the Arizona Stadium field in each of the past four seasons.

I have seen quarterback Willie Tuitama, propped on shoulders, carried off the field.

I have seen crazy kids tugging, hugging, mugging the goal posts in an always-unsuccessful quest to bring them down.

But I had never seen that look of pure joy that I saw in the coaches’ faces Saturday night after a 42-27 victory over 25th-ranked Cal.

That’s why Stoops doesn’t need any reminder that this was his biggest victory. It was all right there in the multiple hugs with his coaching staff.

“I hadn’t seen the coaches like that before,” said senior linebacker Ronnie Palmer.

“To tell the truth, that one did feel special. I don’t know if it’s because I’m a senior or because that was a complete team effort.”

Maybe both, and don’t forget this:

Previous big victories – over No. 18 ASU in 2004, over No. 7 UCLA in 2005, over No. 8 Cal in 2006, over No. 2 Oregon last season – came late in the season when the Wildcats were mostly trying to make a little chicken salad.

“I don’t think there’s been a better win for the program,” said assistant coach Dana Dimel, in his third season with Stoops. “It’s not even close because here we are, third week in October, and we’re on top of the conference.”

Added quarterback Willie Tuitama: “We haven’t even been close to No. 1 in the Pac-10 in a really long time.”

A really long time. As in 14 years.

The last time Arizona was in this good shape at the rough midpoint of the conference season was 1994. The Wildcats were 4-0 in the conference, but surrendered control of the race in a 10-9 loss at eventual champion Oregon.

Arizona, agonizingly, finished one game back at 6-2.

So, yes, this is rare and happy territory for the Wildcats at this point of the season.

“Much has been written and much has been said about us,” Stoops said. “A lot of times we have been written off. We always seem to come back.

“I don’t think a lot of people would have thought late in October we would be playing for first place. That is a good feeling.”

Arizona gets to feel good because it had the fortitude to come back from a 24-14 halftime deficit against Cal and because it wasn’t one of those fluky, things-happen types of victories.

Stoops shelved a conservative defensive approach, and attacked and suffocated Cal in the second half.

The offense, led by freshman running back Keola Antolin doing his impression of a cannonball, was more physical than the Bears’, hitting big plays on the ground and in the air.

Coaching. Execution. Passion.

“Cal is a good football team. I was scared to death of this game,” Dimel said. “They are such big, physical guys and I was worried we wouldn’t be able to stay balanced and would have to throw all the time.”

It didn’t work out that way, and now Arizona, at 3-1 in the conference, is one of four teams tied for the league lead. The others are Oregon State, Oregon and USC.

UA has yet to play any of those teams, which might be bad news (the toughest tests are yet to come) but might be good news (Arizona controls its own destiny).

At worst, the Wildcats are one away from getting six victories, assuring a .500 season and nearly guaranteeing a spot in one of the league’s seven bowl affiliations. The Pac-10 likely won’t have more than seven bowl-eligible teams.

With horrifically bad Washington State still on the schedule, you can take six victories to the bank.

But that’s no longer the bar of expectations.

That is why Saturday’s game was Stoops’ biggest victory.

His Wildcats get to play Saturday night against sixth-ranked USC in a high-energy, high-stakes homecoming game. All of the conference’s biggest prizes are in play.

As a fan yelled at Stoops as he left the field Saturday, “Bring on them Trojans!”

Imagine the really nice things we would write about Stoops next week if he won that game.

Saturday: No. 6 USC (5-1, 3-1) at UA (5-2, 3-1), 7 p.m. (sellout expected). TV: FSNA

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

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