By Anthony Gimino - Special for Tucson News Now
Austin Hill had the ball. He had the ball, somehow, some way, with the scoreboard reading 0:00, teammates piling on top of him, athletic director Greg Byrne sprinting across the end zone, crowd spilling out of the stands, the referees signaling touchdown. Austin Hill had the ball.
He emerged from the bottom of the pile, that ball held aloft, the ball that came from the right arm of Anu Solomon through the Tucson night and into his hands, four Cal defenders flanking him, cornerback Darius Allensworth having jostled him, hand to hand, for about the final 20 yards.
Austin Hill had the ball.
And he wasn't letting go.
Hill tucked the ball under his arm as Arizona Stadium erupted into chaos. He didn't let go as replay officials confirmed the catch. He held tight as cameras followed him, reporters interviewed him, fans chanted behind him, "U of A … U of A."
Austin Hill didn't let go of that Hail Mary football until he left the field, the scoreboard blaring the implausible final -- Arizona 49, Cal 45 -- representing the biggest comeback in school history. The Wildcats, who were down 22 points late in the first half, scored 36 points in the final quarter, the final six on a 47-yard pass from Solomon to Hill.
"I didn't know who caught it," Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said. "When I ran down to the corner of the end zone, I saw it was Austin holding that ball like it was his child."
Arizona trailed 31-13 entering the final quarter and so many improbable things, adding up to near impossibility, had to happen for the Wildcats to win.
Here is the fourth-quarter shorthand:
Arizona ran 31 plays for 279 yards, scored five touchdowns -- three in the final 3 minutes, 30 seconds -- kicked a field goal, intercepted a pass (that nearly hit the ground before being batted into the air by a Cal receiver and into the hands of Tra'Mayne Bondurant), recovered an onside kick, failed on another, and did just enough on defense to stop Cal on its last drive as the Bears missed a 47-yard field goal wide left with 52 seconds left.
And it still almost wasn't enough.
The Wildcats, with no timeouts, took over at their 30 and promptly moved back to their 15 after a 41-yard completion to Cayleb Jones was wiped out by his pass interference penalty.
"I was so distraught after," Jones said. "Coaches harp on not pushing off so many times in practice. Even Austin gets on me. I really thought I blew it for us. Thanks to (Austin). He saved my butt."
Solomon passed for 9 yards to Nate Phillips. Incomplete to Jones. Nine yards to Trey Griffey. Twenty yards to Hill on fourth-and-7. Solomon spiked the ball with four seconds left.
Solomon took the final snap and rolled to his right, launching a football prayer.
"About halfway, three quarters of the way there, I knew the ball was coming toward me," Hill said. "And I was just hoping that nobody bumped into me or hit my elbow or jumped on top of me so I could secure the catch."
Instant Arizona football lore.
Put this right there was Ortege Jenkins' Leap by the Lake that stunned Washington in 1998, Darryll Lewis stuffing Oregon quarterback Bill Musgrave at the goal line in the final seconds in 1990, Max Zendejas beating Notre Dame with a last-play 48-yard field goal into the wind in 1982, Zendejas downing Arizona State with a 45-yarder on the final play in 1983, Doug Pfaff kicking a 40-yard goal to upset No. 6 Oklahoma in 1988, Lewis' 70-yard interception return for a touchdown in the final minute for a win at UCLA, ASU's Mick Schuh dropping the punt snap in 1987, Chuck Cecil's 106-yard interception return against the Sun Devils in 1986.
It was Arizona's first Hail Mary victory since Bobby Wade caught a 45-yard pass to beat Washington State in 1999, although Cougars fans will certainly still point to replays that indicated the ball hit the turf.
No replay reviews then; no controversy Saturday night.
"It's funny because we work on that one a day a week -- on Thursday at the end of practice," Rodriguez said of the Hail Mary passes.
"But this week, we paid a little bit more attention to it than normal. We threw one in the back of the end zone, and I told the quarterbacks it needs to be 5 yards deep, so in case it was tipped in front we could still score, or if it was underthrown, we could still score.
"That was about 7 1/2 yards deep," Rodriguez added with a smile about the pass Saturday night, "so Anu still has to work on his accuracy."
This game might top all the great Arizona finishes. It wasn't just a moment, a play. It was a virtuoso build-up, featuring the most points the Wildcats have ever scored in a quarter. Solomon was 19 of 24 for 248 yards and four touchdowns -- just in the final period. When it was over, his 47 completions, 73 attempts, 520 yards were all school records.
"He never panics," Rodriguez said.
That this all came after the Cats made killer mistakes on offense, defense and special teams will be a matter for Rodriguez to get steamed about Sunday in video review, but not nearly enough to ruin the forever-memories of a wild night at Arizona Stadium.
"I told the guys before the game -- before every game -- that we're going to play 60 minutes," Rodriguez said. "It's 60 minutes, not 59 minutes and 56 seconds."
In those final four seconds, linebacker Scooby Wright couldn't watch.
"I was too nervous. But after I saw the catch on the big screen, I was like, 'Wow,'" he said. "And then I blacked out from there."
When he opened his eyes, Austin Hill had the ball.
And then, finally, in the locker room, he didn't.
"I gave it to the team," Hill said. "This was a team victory."
Endings don't get more perfect than that.