Arizona steps up on big stage
TUCSON, Ariz. -- Broderick Binns rumbled across the goal line to complete a startling pick-six, and the game was all but over.
This was the return of Iowa magic. And Arizona tragic.
The Hawkeyes, left for dead after 2½ quarters, had just scored 20 straight points in less than 15 minutes to tie the Wildcats at 27. Arizona's biggest victory in more than a decade was evaporating like dew in the desert. After watching a thrilling night unravel in a late spate of penalties and turnovers, a raucous sellout crowd was enveloped by a familiar feeling in these parts.
The Wildcats have found many creative ways to lose games in the 12 years since the last meeting of ranked teams in Arizona Stadium. Just last year they let their first-ever Rose Bowl bid slip away on this same field against Oregon when they blew a double-digit fourth-quarter lead. Students ringed the field as the Ducks scored the tying touchdown with six seconds left, then won in double overtime.
Iowa, meanwhile, was adhering to its own opposite pedigree. In 2009, the Hawkeyes rallied from 10 down in the second half to beat Northern Iowa. From five down in the fourth quarter to win at Penn State. From seven down in the second half to win at Wisconsin. From 10 down in the fourth quarter to beat Indiana. They scored a touchdown on the final play to win at Michigan State.
So once Iowa defensive end Binns scored with his theft of Arizona quarterback Nick Foles' slant pass, all 57,864 fans in attendance knew what would happen next. It was inevitable.
Except it wasn't.
In a startling reversal of fortunes, Arizona made every single big play in the final eight minutes. Iowa fell apart.
"I'm speechless right now trying to figure out what happened out there," Wildcats coach Mike Stoops said.
Here's the short synopsis, Mike: Goats became heroes. Heroes became goats. And we may have witnessed a breakthrough moment for a hard-luck program.
It started with an anonymous hand. It took a long time after the game to figure out who it belonged to -- Stoops said he had no idea.
Turns out it belonged to redshirt freshman defensive tackle Justin Washington. He broke through the Iowa line to block the Hawkeyes' extra point after Binns' touchdown. That kept the game tied at 27 and kept Iowa from gaining its first lead of the night.
Then the job fell to Foles. Having just thrown a killer interception, lacking injured top target Juron Criner and surrounded by dismay, he cracked jokes with teammates to keep them loose. Then he threw the bomb that changed everything.
On first-and-10 from the Arizona 28, Foles heaved a deep ball for receiver David Roberts. He'd gotten behind the Iowa secondary, but Foles feared he overthrew the pass. Roberts stretched out and made a spectacular catch for a 38-yard gain.
"I screamed like a little girl," Arizona offensive tackle Adam Grant admitted. "[Iowa's Adrian] Clayborn looked at me like I was an idiot. I didn't care."
There were more screams of delight to come. Foles completed his next three passes, driving Arizona to Iowa's 4-yard line.
On second down, he lobbed a perfect fade to the corner of the end zone for William "Bug" Wright. The tiny (5-foot-9, 175 pounds) Wright did what he'd spent most of the second half doing -- screwing up. He dropped a catchable pass.
That followed a couple of boneheaded penalties and a punt that bounced off his face mask to facilitate Iowa's third touchdown of the night. Stoops was about ready to squish his Bug.
"I was kind of losing my patience with him in the fourth quarter," he said.
His teammates were not. They gave Bug a group hug.
"They kept telling me they were going to need me before the game was over," he said. "I think the whole team came up to me at one point."
On third down, Foles epitomized Arizona's faith in Wright by going back to him one last time. He fired a dart into heavy traffic -- and into Wright's hands near the back of the end zone. This time, he held on for the winning score, 34-27.
"I don't think I've ever been that happy in my life," Wright said.
Still, Iowa had plenty of time to answer. But quarterback Ricky Stanzi, the architect of all those comebacks in '09, spent the Hawkeyes' final drive supine. Arizona's blitzing defense panicked Stanzi, sacking him four straight times to cinch an outcome that had seemed impossible just eight minutes earlier.
"It's a character game in a lot of ways," Stoops said. "Those can be program-changing wins."
Now 3-0 for the first time since its high-water 12-1 season of 1998, Arizona appears positioned alongside Stanford as the primary challengers to Oregon in the Pacific-10.
Iowa, meanwhile, must begin regrouping by addressing its special teams. Coach Kirk Ferentz came into this game unhappy with his kick-coverage units, and he won't feel any better after watching Arizona return a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown. Throw in a blocked punt to set up the Wildcats' first score and the blocked extra point, and you have a complete meltdown in that area.
"Those things alone pretty much lost us the game," Ferentz said.
That Iowa lost a big game it was in position to win came as a shock. But it was no greater shock than Arizona winning a big game it was in position to lose.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.