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Defense leads Arizona to 24-17 win over Cal

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<span data-author="5158751">arizona-wildcats-utah-utes-players-to-watch-2018 </span> Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

On a night when the Arizona Wildcats’ offense struggled to move the ball, the defense came up big, generating four turnovers and two touchdowns to lead UA to a 24-17 victory over the California Golden Bears.

Scottie Young Jr. had two interceptions, including a pick-six that put UA up by 10 with 3:13 left.

It came not too long after the Wildcats took the lead late in the third on an even crazier defensive TD. Cal was up 14-10 — and driving — when Colin Schooler intercepted Cal quarterback Brandon McIlwain and returned it 34 yards before having the ball popped loose from behind.

Luckily, UA cornerback Azizi Hearn collected a fortuitous bounce and went the additional 39 yards for the go-ahead score.

“That was all planned,” joked Schooler, who had nine tackles (one for loss) along with his interception. “That went from good play to bad play to great play. That was a huge momentum swing and I gotta trust my teammates to pick up the slack sometimes for me.”

The Bears had several chances to tie or take the lead, but the Wildcats’ D perfected the bend-but-don’t-break approach.

Cal drove to the UA 3 after Hearn’s touchdown, but Dereck Boles stopped McIlwain short on a 4th-and-1 draw.

Then, after UA’s J.J. Taylor lost a fumble near midfield with 8:27 left, Young picked off a deflected ball and returned it to the Cal 28.

Josh Pollack came on to attempt a 40-yard field goal, but it clanked off the left upright. Cal drove into UA territory again, but JB Brown strip-sacked McIlwain for UA’s third turnover.

Arizona’s offense went 3-and-out to give the Bears yet another opportunity, but Young intercepted McIlwain and took it to the house on the first play of the drive to seal the game. Cal would add a short field goal to cut it 24-17 with 16 seconds left but couldn’t recover the onside kick.

“In a game like that, where we’re struggling offensively, your defense needs to keep you in the game or keep you ahead, and they did that,” said UA head coach Kevin Sumlin.

It’s a massive victory for Arizona, which improves to 3-3 and greatly boosted its chances of reaching a bowl game. At 2-1 in the Pac-12, a South championship is still within reach as well.

“That was really a gutty performance,” Sumlin said. “It’s two weeks in a row in the second half where the guys have really played very, very well. (We) gave up a score against USC just once and this week it was the same story except for the things we’ve been harping on — turnovers and getting off the field.”

Khalil Tate had a rough night, going 15-for-25 for 141 yards, a touchdown and an interception. The Wildcats’ running game wasn’t much better. Taylor had 15 carries for 73 yards and Arizona had 125 yards on 33 carries as a whole (3.8 ypc).

The Wildcats were outgained 476-265 and only accumulated 112 yards in the second half.

“That’s football,” said UA wide receiver Tony Ellison. “Sometimes the offense takes care of the defense, and the defense took care of the offense tonight. We’re very grateful for that.”

Arizona trailed 14-10 at the break, despite holding an early 10-0 lead. Tate was sharp early, throwing a 31-yard TD pass down the middle to Ellison on the game’s opening drive.

Then Pollack, who took over kicking duties for Lucas Havrisik, drilled a 46-yard field goal on the second drive.

But Cal responded with a 25-yard rushing TD by McIlwain and UA brought in Jamarye Joiner at quarterback on its next drive, immediately going 3-and-out. It was a planned, but questionable, substitution considering how UA had been moving the ball. And the Arizona O never recaptured its early groove.

Tate completed five of his first seven passes for 69 yards, but finished the first half 7-for-15 for 92 yards. Arizona only had 38 yards in the second quarter.

McIlwain scampered for a 23-yard TD on a QB draw to give Cal the lead heading into the third quarter.

But those were Cal’s last points until the late field goal. Arizona outscored the Bears 14-3 in the second half and have outscored their opponents 124-66 this season after halftime.

“Absolutely incredible,” Ellison described UA’s defense. “Stepped up when it mattered and it was fun to watch. That being said, the offense needs to pick it up next week.”

It’s a quick turnaround as Arizona travels to Salt Lake City to play Utah on Friday. A win could have major implications in the Pac-12 South race.

“This is an interesting group of guys just because you look at the six games that we’ve played, they haven’t quit,” Sumlin said. “We’ve played just as hard in the ones we won as the ones we’ve lost, and as long as we can continue to have that effort we’re going to have a chance to win games.”