TUCSON, Ariz. – One big first-half play after another, Arizona seemed well on its way to a rout. One stumble after the next in the second, a debilitating letdown was on the way.
One final gut-checking drive and the Wildcats have what they hope is a program-defining win.
Nick Foles hit William Wright with a late 4-yard touchdown pass and No. 24 Arizona held its ground in the national spotlight with a momentum-swinging 34-27 win over ninth-ranked Iowa Saturday night.
"I'm speechless right now trying to figure out what just happened out there," Arizona coach Mike Stoops said. "When they were challenged, they challenged them right back."
Looking for a big-ticket win to solidify its rise to prominence, Arizona (3-0) stomped on Iowa early behind a slew of big plays that had old Arizona Stadium shaking. The Wildcats blocked a punt to set up their first score, Travis Cobb returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown and Trevin Wade ran an interception back 85 yards for another score.
Up 20 points at the half, Arizona was well on its way to the measuring-stick win it needed after two lopsided Ws over pushovers.
Iowa (2-1) is no easy mark, though, and tightened its defense in the second half, grinding Arizona's high-scoring offense to a halt. Ricky Stanzi hit two of his three touchdown passes in the third quarter and the Hawkeyes tied it in the fourth, when defensive end Broderick Binns stuck his hands up and the ball stuck, leading to a 20-yard interception return.
Then, momentum shot right back to Arizona.
With Binns trying to catch his breath and his teammates still celebrating, the Wildcats partially blocked Trent Mossbrucker's extra point, leaving the score at 27-all. Arizona shook out of its second-half funk on the next drive, moving 72 yards in nine plays for the Foles-to-Wright score, and sealed the first-big-test win with three sacks of Stanzi.
"Obviously, we're disappointed to not come out with a win," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "Our sloppy play in that first half made it difficult."
Iowa rolled over its first two not-so-challenging opponents by a combined score of 72-14. The road trip to the desert represented a little tougher challenge: a long-distance road game (over 1,500 miles) with a late start (9:30 p.m. Iowa City time) in hot-air-dryer heat (close to 100 at kickoff).
On top of that, the Hawkeyes were facing a talented Arizona team looking to prove itself against a big-school program in one of the most-anticipated nonconference games in the 81-year history of Arizona Stadium.
The Wildcats were certainly up for it, producing one big play after another in a stadium-rocking first half.
Arizona held Iowa to a quick three-and-out on its first drive, then David Roberts broke through to block Ryan Donahue's punt, which Marquis Flowers recovered at the Hawkeyes 8. Three plays later, Foles hit David Douglas on a 5-yard slant for a touchdown that had the rowdies in red jumping and pumping their white pompoms.
Iowa was marching on its second drive, but receiver Marvin McNutt Jr. had the ball slip through his hands and it fell right to Wade, who had a clear shot to the end zone for an 85-yard score.
Barely five minutes into the game, Iowa was in a 14-0 hole.
The Hawkeyes kept plugging away on offense, though, moving 93 yards for a 4-yard touchdown pass from Stanzi to Jewel Hampton, the first touchdown against Arizona this season.
Then, boom! another big play: Cobb burst through a seam like one of the pregame fireworks on the ensuing kickoff and was gone, 100 yards for a touchdown that put Arizona up 21-7.
"That was tough to watch from the sidelines," Binns said. "Iowa is not normally known for having a lot of problems on special teams."
Tacking on two field goals by Alex Zendejas, including a career-long-matching 47-yarder, Arizona had a seemingly comfortable 27-7 halftime lead.
Turning up the defensive pressure, Iowa stymied Arizona's offense in the third quarter — 58 total yards — and pulled within 13 points on a 37-yard touchdown pass from Stanzi to Derrell Johnson-Koulianos.
Iowa came up with a big play of its own on special teams, recovering a muffed punt by Bug Wright at the Wildcats 18. Stanzi hit McNutt on a backpedaling touchdown pass at the edge of the end zone on the next play, making it 27-21.
Binns followed with his at-the-line grab and return for a score, only to watch in amazement from the sideline as the PAT wobbled away from the uprights.
Then it was Foles' turn.
Getting the ball out quickly to avoid Iowa's strengthening rush, the junior completed 4 of 5 passes on the final drive, hitting Wright for the decisive score with 3:57 left. Foles finished with 303 yards and two touchdowns on 28-of-39 passing, solidifying his — and his team's — place among the country's best up-and-comers.
"That was a big win for our program," said Tim Kish, Arizona's co-defensive coordinator.
One to remember.