ALBUQUERQUE — Just like Thursday practice.
Arizona Wildcats senior kicker John Bonano set the ball low on the tee, lined up on the right hashmark. He knew what he had to do. Hit the top of the ball. Squirt it along the ground, hoping to get a big second bounce.
Just like Thursday practice.
Except this wasn’t the practice field on campus. This was the New Mexico Bowl, University Stadium, 42 seconds left, Arizona down by six points to Nevada, out of timeouts. If the Wolf Pack recovered the onside kick, game over.
C’mon, how often do these things work?
Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez was yelling at his assistants to make sure they not only had 11 guys on the field, but had them lined up properly. This is what UA calls the Takeaway Team. Coaches had to shuffle personnel on the fly because of injuries.
“And then,” Rodriguez said, “it’s just crossing the fingers a little bit.”
Some things are left to the football gods, and some things happen by design. Sometimes both at once. Bonano looked up and found a Nevada guy “sitting right there” that he wanted to aim the kick at. Hit the ball low and hard and right at him and — hey, football gods — how about a good bounce?
Yep. Just like Thursday practice. Sometimes, Bonano said, even after Thursday practice. All to increase the odds, even slightly, that the ball, the bounce, goes your way even maybe once in a lifetime.
What he didn’t want is for the ball to have a high hop on the first bounce; the defense can call for a fair catch when that happens under rules instituted this season.
“I was taking a knee at the 48, saying just let it hit something and just go flying up in the air and have someone grab it,” said senior center Kyle Quinn.
That’s what happened.
“That’s going to be on every highlight reel tonight, knowing how perfect that was,” Quinn said.
The ball skittered and then popped up, deflecting off Duke Williams’ upper body, and there it was, waiting for someone to grab it. That someone was linebacker Marquis Flowers.
“Bonano placed the ball perfect,” Flowers said.
“I mean, it hit the dude in the face and came right back. It actually hit him in the face. I was in the right spot at the right time. …
“We practice it all the time, but when it actually hit him, it went like in slow motion. I look on the ground, and the ball is rolling right down, and I was like, ‘My team needs me.’ So I jumped on it and secured it.”
Arizona had the ball at its 49 with 40 seconds left. Three passes later, including a 2-yarder to Tyler Slavin, the Wildcats were in the end zone and the game was tied at 48 with 19 seconds left.
Shades of ASU in 2010. Arizona needed a PAT in the final seconds for the victory. On that night in Tucson, Alex Zendejas had that would-be game-winning point blocked.
On this day, Nevada called timeout in an attempt to “ice” Bonano.
“I actually like it when teams do that,” he said. “It gives me time to warm up a little more. It didn’t faze me at all. I was ready to make the kick.”
And so he did. Arizona led 49-48 and would go on to absolutely secure the win when Flowers intercepted a pass near midfield.
“I tried not to think about too much,” Bonano said of his PAT. “I’ve done it hundreds of times. Just keep my head down and put it straight through the middle.
“I’m used to the pressure by now; senior year, I’m glad it came down to that and I could give my team the opportunity to win. Just do my job.”
He even hit his final kickoff into the end zone for a touchback, preventing Nevada the chance for a long runback and the potential to kick a field goal.
But it is Bonano’s onside kick that will be long remembered.
“I always tease those kickers,” Rodriguez said.
“They’ve got about 16, 17 periods a day to work on it. You could tell he’s worked on it. It’s a tremendous kick. Again, it was a lucky bounce. But a little bit of luck and a little bit of guys hustling made it happen.”
In all, not a bad final minute to Bonano’s career.