Stoops’ fortunes at Arizona changed in 2007 game against Washingtonby Anthony Gimino on Oct. 23, 2010, under Sports
Coach Mike Stoops’ tenure with the Arizona Wildcats is clearly divided into two areas: Before and after the game at Washington on Oct. 27, 2007.
Stoops, near the near of his fourth season, had a 14-28 record at that point while trying to rebuild the Wildcats from the John Mackovic wreckage. Since rallying in the fourth quarter to beat Washington nearly three years ago, Arizona is 24-12.
From 33.3 percent to 66.7 percent.
“I don’t know if desperate was the right word,” said co-defensive coordinator Tim Kish, reflecting on the game. “We were trying to win any game we could get our hands on, so if that’s desperate, it’s desperate. Yeah, I remember it well, it was definitely a pivotal game for us.”
Arizona trailed by 15 points early in the fourth quarter, and Stoops’ apparently was losing his grip on his first head coaching job.
And then the Cats rallied to begin a three-game winning streak that ended with a 34-24 home victory over No. 2 Oregon. Arizona used that momentum to launch to back-to-back 8-5 records and this year’s 5-1 mark at the halfway point of the season.
But, first, was the comeback against Washington. Here is an excerpt of a story I wrote for the 2008 print edition of the Tucson Citizen, looking back at the most critical game of the Stoops era:
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 14-29 (note: this record was incorrectly reported in the original version). 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. …
“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.”