Sunday, Dec. 21, 2008 | 12:30 a.m.
- Las Vegas Bowl live game blog
- Breaking down the Las Vegas Bowl
- Arizona’s top-ranked defense faces tough task
- BYU’s senior offensive linemen brace for final challenge
- Las Vegas Bowl players take time out for ailing children
- Arizona not intimidated by snow
- BYU hopes to prove it is worthy of more than the Las Vegas Bowl
- Bishop Gorman alum makes welcome homecoming in Las Vegas Bowl
- Stoops defends Arizona’s ability to handle bowl game distractions
- Hasselhoff to rock the Las Vegas Bowl
- Meet the Arizona Wildcats
- Meet the BYU Cougars
When Arizona senior quarterback Willie Tuitama walked into the interview room Saturday night after the Wildcats' 31-21 upset of No. 16 BYU, coach Mike Stoops immediately stood up and hugged his star player.
That warm embrace was more than a congratulatory acknowledgment of Tuitama earning the 17th Pioneer Las Vegas Bowl's MVP award –- it was a show of gratitude for weathering the pain, doubt and criticism that comes with rebuilding a football program.
"Willie has been and is an incredible player for us," Stoops said. "There is no one that has endured more, maybe me, than him over the last four years. Me and him have been through a lot together. To see it come full circle for him tonight, he will go down in history at Arizona."
Tuitama completed 24 of 35 passes for 325 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for one more score to signal Arizona football's resurrection in front of 40,047 fans at Sam Boyd Stadium.
The Wildcats hadn't appeared in a bowl game since 1998.
Although Tuitama will garner much of the spotlight for Saturday's victory, he was the first person to spread credit to his senior teammates. When this current crop of seniors committed to Arizona, the Wildcats had won just nine games in the previous three seasons. As freshmen, they went 3-8.
"We've been through a lot," Tuitama said. "A lot of people really don't understand all the different things that we've been through. People not talking good about us and things like that. But as a football player you have to put those things aside and go out and work everyday. We had a goal before the season started and tonight we reached it."
But the Gatorade shower and the confetti explosions almost never happened for the Wildcats.
After jumping out to a 10-0 lead early in the second quarter, Arizona soon found itself on its heels.
BYU running back Harvey Unga punched in a 1-yard touchdown run to narrow the gap to 10-7 minutes before halftime.
Then crisis struck.
On the first play of the second half, Tuitama fumbled while trying to avoid a sack and Coleby Claweson recovered for the Cougars.
Six plays later, BYU quarterback Max Hall hit tight end Andrew George in the back of the end zone to put the Cougars on top 14-10 with 11:21 in the third quarter.
"When they took the lead we knew we had to get it back," Tuitama said. "That's the kind of people we have on our offense. If they score, we're going to score. And that's how we like it … When we came out and fumbled on the first play there, guys kind of got down. But we told them to relax and just run the offense."
That's what the Wildcats did as Tuitama connected with Delashaun Dean for a 37-yard touchdown on the ensuing drive to take a 17-14 lead.
Arizona ended up posting 21 unanswered points to take a 31-14 lead into the fourth quarter before BYU's final touchdown.
Tuitama completed passes to seven receivers while Nic Grigsby rushed 20 times for 88 yards and one touchdown.
The Wildcats shredded the Cougars' defense for 416 total yards.
"We've seen all those same plays in practice and we've practiced them 1,000 times," said a frustrated BYU linebacker David Nixon. "We just had some guys who may have been thinking a little too much and we didn't execute like we should have. When you don't make plays, it's going to be a long day."
Arizona's defense, however, managed to largely contain one of the best passing offenses in the nation.
The Wildcats caused five turnovers and sacked BYU quarterback Max Hall twice. Although Hall completed 30 of 46 passes for 328 yards, he threw for only one touchdown. Arizona also kept BYU star receiver Austin Collie from finding the end zone even though he caught 11 passes for 119 yards.
Junior linebacker Xavier Kelley led the Wildcats with 15 tackles, one sack and one forced fumble.
"We had to go with physical tackling –- we had eight guys in the box at all times," Kelley said. "We had our ups and downs, and this is tremendous. It's amazing, amazing."
What is perhaps more amazing is that since beating Nebraska 23-20 in the 1998 Holiday Bowl to cap off a 12-1 season, Arizona went 39-65 over the next nine years.
"I just love these guys," Stoops said about his players. "All year they've been special. They've embraced this challenge. Four years ago we were nothing and at the bottom of the Pac-10. We climbed ourselves out of the hole. It takes so much, day in and day out, to turn a program around. I can't explain it to you. It's a tough process. We've endured a lot."
Steve Silver can be reached at 948-7822 or [email protected].