TUCSON, Ariz. – Just when No. 14 Arizona seemed headed for a crushing loss, Nick Foles and Juron Criner finally brought the Wildcats' offense to life.
Foles threw a 3-yard pass over the middle to Criner with 1:11 to play for the game's only touchdown and Arizona escaped with a 10-9 victory over California in their Pac-10 opener on Saturday night.
The score was set up by Foles' 51-yard pass to Criner, questionable for the game because of a turf toe injury. The 6-foot-4 Criner fought off California's Darian Hagan, who had played smothering pass defense all night, on the big play.
"Like my coach tells me all the time," Criner said, "when the ball is in the air it belongs to me. That was the only thing I was playing in my head. I just had to go up and get it."
The winning seven-play, 77-yard drive came after California's Giorgio Tavecchhio missed a 40-yard field goal try with 2:37 to play. Arizona is 4-0 for the first time since 1998.
A loss would have been devastating for the Wildcats a week after their draining 34-27 home win over then-No. 9 Iowa. Arizona is the only Pac-10 team never to make it to the Rose Bowl.
"We're spent," Wildcats coach Mike Stoops said. "I think our fans are spent. It was a flat night all the way around. You could just kind of feel it after such an emotional game a week ago. But if you're going to win a championship or you're going to compete for one, you're going to have to find a way to win. Certainly we found a way to win tonight."
Arizona has next weekend off.
The Wildcats clinched the victory when Kevin Riley's pass bounced off the hands of Marvin Jones and was intercepted by Joseph Perkins. Perkins fumbled but Robert Golden recovered for Arizona.
Cal coach Jeff Tedford said he was "just absolutely, unbelievably disappointed."
He said his defense "played great."
"They played their tail off," Tedford said. "(Arizona) had one big play. They made the play to set them up and we didn't."
It appeared that Tavecchio's field goals of 25, 40 and 23 yards would be enough for the Bears (2-2), who had shut down Arizona's prolific offense a week after giving up 497 yards and being routed 52-31 at Nevada.
The Wildcats helped out with 10 penalties for 99 yards. Foles completed 25 of 39 passes for 212 yards but had two critical first-half turnovers.
His fumble on a sack by Cal's Cameron Jordan on the final play of the first quarter led to the Bears' first field goal. Then, in the final seconds of the half, he was intercepted in the end zone after Arizona had driven to the Cal 13.
Stoops said his team "made a lot of selfish plays and our discipline wasn't very good when it needed to be."
"We were good enough to overcome all the penalties," he said, "but this luck will only last so long."
Shane Vereen, who had a game-clinching touchdown run in Cal's victory over Arizona a year ago, rushed for 102 yards in 27 carries. He was the workhorse as the Bears drove downfield in the final minutes but Tavecchio's 40-yard field goal try was wide right.
That gave Arizona its last chance.
"There are no moral victories," Cal defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast said. "I told the guys all week that this game would come down to the last drive and Arizona made the plays at the end."
Tavecchio also had a 40-yard try bounce off the right upright in the third quarter.
"I haven't ever played in a game that hurts this much," Bears safety Chris Conte said. "I don't mean to get emotional, but this loss was especially hard."
Riley was 13 of 26 for 113 yards. The only Cal turnover came on the game-clinching play.
A personal foul penalty called on the Arizona defense, with no individual named by the official, aided California's 11-play, 55-yard drive that ended in Tavecchio's 40-yarder that gave the Bears a 6-0 lead with 5:23 left in the half.
Arizona drove the length of the field after Cal's subsequent kickoff, with a pass interference call against Hagan on a long throw for Criner moving the ball to the California 13 with 45 seconds left on the half.
On the next play, Foles lofted a pass intended for his roommate David Douglas in the right corner of the end zone. California's Marc Anthony deflected the pass and Conte grabbed it, getting a foot down just inbound for the interception.
Arizona finally scored on Alex Zendejas' 46-yard field goal with 10:16 left in the third quarter.