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4th-quarter freshness has energized Arizona in last two games

NCAA Football: UCLA at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Wildcats were a really bad fourth quarter away from making a bowl game last season. If they fail to earn a postseason bid this fall, it doesn’t figure to be for the same reason.

“That’s just when we rally up and come tight,” defensive lineman JB Brown said of the fourth quarter, where Arizona has outscored its opponents 32-24 this season and has shut out the last two foes.

NAU scored two touchdowns in the final 7:12 of Arizona’s 65-41 blowout win on Sept. 7. Since then, however, no foe has put points on the board in the final 15 minutes. In fact, Arizona shut out Texas Tech over the last 21-plus minutes of its 28-14 victory on Sept. 14, and UCLA’s last score came with two seconds left in the third quarter in the Wildcats’ 20-17 win last Saturday.

As a result, Arizona was able to do something in both games that it hadn’t done in more than two dozen previous instances: come from behind late.

The fourth-quarter play is a far contrast from the end of last season, when Arizona blew a 19-point lead at home to ASU that cost it a bowl bid.

“We’ve learned from it, but we let that go,” safety Scottie Young Jr. said of the ASU collapse. “We told ourselves we’d never let that happen again.”

Arizona’s work to be better late in games began in the offseason, with strength and conditioning coach Brian Johnson designing programs specifically to improve stamina. Offensive lineman Cody Creason said many of those workouts were even broken down into quarters to better simulate game conditions.

“After the third quarter we all put our fours up,” he said. “During the end of games we still feel like we have a second wind.”

The same can’t be said of Arizona’s last two opponents, coach Kevin Sumlin noted on Monday during his weekly press conference.

“The last couple weeks we’ve seen other guys kinda flopping around on the field in the fourth quarter,” he said. “Our guys have not been for whatever reason. We’re in pretty good physical condition, that showed the last couple of weeks, and it showed early (in the second half) against Hawaii but it wasn’t enough.”

Arizona’s plan to constantly rotate players, particularly on the defensive line, has also played a big role. UCLA had 85 offensive snaps last Saturday, with the Wildcats using eight different bodies up front.

“We were rolling three D-linemen at a time, sometimes four,” Sumlin said. “I think it’s a lot different than last year when we had guys playing 75, 80 plays and getting worn down. We’ve got to get these guys in the game and keep these guys fresh; 295-pound guys can’t be playing 80, 90 plays a game. That rotation, for the last couple of weeks, has really helped us down the stretch and in the fourth quarter.”

Brown said he played about 45 snaps against UCLA, while Finton Connolly said he was on the field for about half of the defensive plays both against the Bruins and Texas Tech.

“It was very helpful for us, as a defensive line, to have fresh legs out there,” Connolly said. “We saw guys on Texas Tech, guys dropping on the ground. We were looking around and (our) guys were standing there with good posture, not looking fatigued.”

That freshness could be a major factor on Saturday at Colorado, with the game being played at a much higher elevation than in Tucson. It will also be the second of six consecutive Saturdays that Arizona is playing after getting two byes in the first five weeks of the season.

“We’ve been working really hard,” Young said. “Throughout the offseason and during the week, too, to make sure that we are fresh later on in those games, to finish games.”