By Anthony Gimino / Special for Tucson News Now
TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - The 73rd pass of the game left Anu Solomon's hand, and he immediately had a terrifying thought.
"I really thought I threw it out of bounds," he said.
That pass, the one that came on the final play of Saturday night's game against Cal, traveled about 60 yards in the air and into the hands of Austin Hill for a 49-45 victory, instantly becoming one of the greatest plays in Arizona football history.
Solomon did throw the ball a few yards longer than he intended, but it was still well in-bounds near the back of the end zone.
"Please, God," he said he thought as he watched the ball arc toward the end zone. "Please, God, someone catch it. Someone in white, please catch it."
Hail Mary, answered.
Solomon now turns his focus toward atoning for his football sins from the first three quarters Saturday night.
Here is what is really to like about Solomon's first four games at quarterback as a redshirt freshman:
He declared his performance against Nevada two weeks ago "horrible" despite completing 22 of 26 passes for 278 yards and three touchdowns. And he's not as much interested in the "Hill Mary" finish and his school-record-setting stats (47 completions, 73 attempts, 520 passing yards) as he is with a little number from the stat sheet.
That's his number of interceptions, both of which came in the first half. Arizona had only 13 points entering the final quarter.
"The first three quarters were very disgusting," he said. "I was telling Coach, 'I feel really bad. I'm so sorry.'"
He's hard on himself - perhaps too much so - but isn't that refreshing? Rich Rodriguez's young quarterback isn't getting an overinflated ego after his first month of college football.
It takes a thick skin to play quarterback for Rodriguez. That's not necessarily the best way to describe Solomon. But he accomplishes the goal with a short memory and a natural "what-me-worry?" attitude that allows him to think clearly and move calmly into the next play. It took the UA coaches about a year to figure out that Solomon's state of "chill" was a positive, not a negative.
"We want football to be important to everybody - particularly at the quarterback position," quarterbacks coach Rod Smith said after Tuesday's practice.
"I had some reservations early on - does this mean enough to him? We pushed him and prodded him, and that's what all of last year was, trying to find out. There is not a doubt in my mind, as I sit here today ... he 100 percent cares - a lot. His way of doing it is different than other guys, and I respect that."
The fire in the belly is now revealing itself.
Down and nearly out Saturday night, having made bad throws and questionable decisions for three quarters - "He was awful," Smith said - Solomon completed 19 of 24 passes for 248 yards and four touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Time was, that would be an all-time great game for an Arizona quarterback.
"He doesn't get fazed by the moment," Smith said.
"We try to stress him out (in practice). I'm sure there are times we do and he probably hates our guts, but it's for a purpose. It's never personal. It's for when he goes over there in that stadium, that it's easier than what practice is. I think his demeanor helps him."
Hard to argue.
Solomon is fifth nationally and first among freshmen in passing yards at 363.5 yards per game. He is 29th nationally in passing efficiency with a rating of 154.3 - better than Nick Foles or Matt Scott as seniors. Solomon is crafty and shifty enough as a runner - 39 carries for 167 yards - to be effective in RichRod's zone-read attack.
The best part of his game?
"His confidence to make plays, confidence in himself," sophomore receiver Cayleb Jones said. "He's made mistakes and doesn't let it affect him. He's a natural leader. He's the oldest of seven kids, so he's been a leader ever since he was little."
Defenses only get faster from here, especially at Oregon next Thursday night. Expect more freshman mistakes along the way. But you couldn't have scripted the first month of Solomon's career any better - confidence-building success combined with teachable moments, all shaded by the now-certain knowledge that white-hot passion exists beneath the unflappable exterior.
What a blessing for a young quarterback to already have the biggest comeback in school history - 22 points at halftime - in his back pocket.
"It's going to help him immeasurably," Smith said.
"It's not all coming to him easily. He's having to work for things. He's having to scratch and claw and make things happen toward the end of the games and make big plays. It won't be his first time throwing from behind in the fourth quarter or on the last drive of the game.
"He's already done that, so there's comfort in that, I think."
Anthony Gimino has covered University of Arizona athletics for more than two decades, including as the football beat writer for the Arizona Daily Star and the columnist for the Tucson Citizen.