Ugly wins are better that pretty losses.
Arizona won a game it tried its darnedest to lose, rallying to beat Stanford 21-20 on Saturday night in Palo Alto, Calif.
The Wildcats (3-1, 1-0) won their Pac-12 opener for the first time since 2019, ending a 6-game skid to the Cardinal and coming out ahead in Palo Alto for the first time since 2006. And they did so with a fourth-quarter comeback led by their backup quarterback and third-string running back.
DJ Williams’ 2-yard touchdown run with 7:42 left was the game winner, and it came with Noah Fifita at quarterback. Fifita entered the game after Jayden de Laura appeared to injure his right ankle, and the sophomore was 4 for 4 for 47 yards and had two carries for nine yards on the final two drives.
Fifita completed a third-down pass to Jacob Cowing with less than three minutes to go, then Williams gained eight yards on the ground and slid inbounds with under 1:40 left to clinch the victory.
Williams had 39 yards on 11 carries, his most since the 2022 season opener at San Diego State. He and Jonah Coleman (12 carries, 75 yards) filled in admirably for senior Michael Wiley, who had two carries in the first quarter before limping off the field and not returning.
De Laura was 14 of 26 for 157 yards and a TD, adding a rushing score, but looked out of sorts almost the whole game. He was seen wearing a protective boot on his right foot after the game.
Arizona was outgained 358-349 but did not turn the ball over for the first time since last November’s upset win at UCLA. The Wildcat defense recorded five sacks, most since November 2018.
Down 10-7 at the half, Arizona forced a punt and then went ahead on a 7-yard de Laura run 5:53 remaining in the third. The Wildcats converted a 4th-and-1 near midfield to keep the drive alive, then de Laura went untouched for the score after selling an RPO handoff and keeping it.
Stanford’s Sedrick Irvin scored from less than a yard out to go backup 17-14 with 1:49 left in the third. The drive was maintained by a pair of catches on 3rd and long, both to receivers guarded by safety Gunner Maldonado.
De Laura was hurt at the end of the next drive, a 3-and-out that saw him go down along the sideline after having to throw it away. After Arizona got the ball back, following a second missed long field goal attempt, it was Fifita, who to this point had only seen garbage time during his career.
Fifita completed both passes on the ensuing drive, including an 18-yarder to Tanner McLachlan to get the Wildcats into the red zone. A few plays later, Williams pounded it in from 2 yards out to give Arizona a 21-17 lead with 7:42 remaining.
Stanford cut it to 21-20 with 3:09 to go on a 46-yard field goal, having to settle after a Jacob Manu sack and a penalty for the QB throwing past the line of scrimmage halting a drive that had gotten to the UA 21. The Cardinal were 2 of 4 on field goals, after kicker Joshua Karty had made 25 consecutive tries entering the game.
Arizona had another slow start, its three first-quarter possessions resulting in a 3-and-out, a punt from plus territory and a turnover on downs. Yet the Wildcats only trailed 3-0 after 15 minutes despite giving up a 45-yard missed tackle-fueled run on 3rd down on Stanford’s first drive and back-to-back 25-yard catches on its third drive.
The UA defense buckled down at the end of both possessions, forcing field goal tries. The Cardinal connected on a 35-yarder for a 3-0 lead with 10:35 left in the first quarter but missed a 51-yarder on the final play of the first quarter.
The Wildcats have managed just seven points on 11 first-quarter possessions this season. But as they have in every game in 2023, they scored the first time they had the ball in the second period.
Three straight pass plays, all for double-digit yardage to different receivers, culminated in a 36-yard TD catch by McLachlan to put the UA up 7-3 with 13:37 left in the first half.
Stanford retook the lead with 5:44 to go before halftime on a 2-yard run by Bryce Farrell, a score aided by a pass interference call on Tacario Davis on the previous play when he intercepted the ball in the end zone.
Arizona returns home to host No. 8 Washington next Saturday.