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It’s a grind: Arizona Wildcats hold off Cal, setting up big Homecoming game

Arizona';s Nate Phillips caught a touchdown pass for the fourth consecutive game. Photo via Pac-12.com

Arizona’s Nate Phillips caught a touchdown pass for the fourth consecutive game. Photo via Pac-12.com

There are no style points in football, and the Arizona Wildcats wouldn’t have earned any Saturday afternoon if there were.

On a day when quarterback B.J. Denker entered a bit banged up, All-American running back Ka’Deem Carey was favoring an ankle and defensive cornerstone Jake Fischer didn’t play, Arizona cobbled together enough plays to turn back pesky Cal 33-28 in Berkeley.

“As I told the team, it’s not pretty,” coach Rich Rodriguez said in his postgame interview on 1290-AM (KCUB).

“But we don’t worry about being pretty. We just want to be resilient.”

Arizona fell behind 7-0 after the opening possession but immediately answered with a tying touchdown and then went ahead 9-7 late in the first quarter on a safety. The Wildcats never relinquished the lead but couldn’t make the Bears disappear from the rear-view mirror, failing to lead by more than two scores at any point.

The Cats stiff-armed Cal with the help of two second-half interceptions. The first, by Jonathan McKnight at the Cal 27, led to an Arizona touchdown and a 33-21 lead. The second was by Jourdon Grandon in the end zone on the ensuing possession.

Cal closed to within five points on super catch by Kenny Lawler for a 29-yard score with 1:42 left. Arizona has seen some wild endings in Memorial Stadium in the past quarter century, but this one ended quietly, without further incident.

McKnight snagged an on-side kick, Carey ran for a first down … and it was victory formation time for the Wildcats.

“It’s good to grind this one out,” Rodriguez said.

“We gave up a touchdown on the first possession, and a lot of times a team will panic. But our defense didn’t. They came up and did a good job of settling down after that.”

Denker completed 24 of 38 passes for 261 yards and a touchdown, and he ran 15 times for 44 yards and three scores. He improved his season total to 11 rushing touchdowns; no Arizona quarterback had ever rushed for more than nine in a season (Ronald Veal, 1987).

Rodriguez said Denker didn’t do much in practice this week because he was banged up, and the intent was to limit his exposure in the run game. But Cal’s defense stubbornly (and understandably) schemed to stop Carey, having their ends crash down hard to stop the runs up the middle.

In that case, Denker’s read in the read-option is to keep the ball.

“The defense really loaded up against Ka’Deem,” Denker told reporters after the game.

“They didn’t want him to have the ball, so I knew I was going to have to carry it some and take some shots. Yeah, I’m a little banged up, but they geared toward stopping Ka’Deem and I was able to take advantage. Even on plays where I had to hand it to Ka’Deem, I didn’t want to because they were so focused on him.”

Carey, who entered the game averaging a national-best 153.3 yards per game, still managed to be right on target, although he needed 32 carries to get his 152 yards.

“We got pushed around a little bit (up front), but if there is anything at all there, Ka’Deem gets it,” Rodriguez said.

“He wasn’t 100 percent. His ankle was bothering him a little bit. He had a hard time cutting off, I think, his right foot. Nonetheless, he made some big plays and, obviously, the big run to get the first down at the end was a key.”

The total yardage was nearly even at the end — 448 for Arizona and 419 for Cal — with the two interceptions thrown by Jared Goff looming as game-changers. Denker has been intercepted just three times in 234 pass attempts, with two of the picks coming in the water-logged game at Washington.

“If we had a turnover today, we would have lost,” Rodriguez said. “We took care of the ball and made some good decisions in the pass game.”

So, Arizona moves on, at a bowl-eligible 6-2 overall and 3-2 in the Pac-12, having won three consecutive games, all in the conference. Cal is 1-8 overall, 0-6 in the league.

Next up for UA is a Homecoming game against UCLA (8 p.m., ESPN). For the next week, the Wildcats can dream about an upset and being a legit threat in the Pac-12 South race.

“We still control a lot of things,” Rodriguez said. “Who knows what will happen? We have a huge challenge ahead of us.”

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