By Anthony Gimino / Special for Tucson News Now
Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez, right fist in the air in celebration while serenaded with chants of "U of A! U of A!" had nearly left the field when a fan practically jumped into his arms.
"I love you!" the young man screamed.
Go ahead and shout it. It's safe to say Tucson -- and Wildcats fans everywhere -- feel the same.
In a wild game befitting the crazy history of the Territorial Cup rivalry, Arizona scored on defense, blocked a punt, scored on two plays of at least 69 yards, made a goal-line stand, had 15 tackles for loss and came up with a white-knuckled defensive stop for the ages to beat Arizona State 42-35 in the school's most significant victory in more than 100 years of football.
Let's say that again. The most significant victory in more than 100 years of football.
"Here we are, where we wanted to be at the beginning of August, playing for the Pac-12 championship," Rodriguez said.
Yep. The Arizona Wildcats -- the same Arizona Wildcats picked to finish fourth in the Pac-12 South before the season, the same Arizona Wildcats who were a rock-bottom mess when Rodriguez was hired just three years ago -- will play Oregon for the conference championship Friday in Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.
"It's just electric," said Arizona athletics director Greg Byrne.
The Wildcats finished the regular season with a four-game winning streak, clawing back from a loss at UCLA, and watching, with fingers crossed, that the Pac-12 South dominoes would tumble in the right direction. They did. The last one to fall was Stanford's upset at UCLA, in a game that was played Friday at the same time as the one in Tucson.
Rodriguez didn't know that his team's win over Arizona State made the Wildcats the Pac-12 champs at 7-2 in the league and 10-2 overall until he was striding across the field for the postgame handshake with ASU coach Todd Graham.
Most of the players were in the dark, too … well, except for senior offensive tackle Mickey Baucus, who said he got an update from "a little birdie" while on the sideline.
"I actually found out with about five minutes left to go in the fourth quarter," Baucus said, "and my life got a whole lot more stressful for the last five minutes."
And there wasn't much Baucus could do about it.
Arizona State took over at its 43 with 2:56 left, needing a touchdown to tie. A pass interference call on third-and-19 helped keep the drive alive at the UA 42, but the Wildcats forced the Sun Devils into a fourth-and-12 situation. Mike Bercovici threw incomplete to well-covered receiver Jaelen Strong.
"I couldn't watch. I was a nervous wreck," Baucus said. "I was sitting there with my head down. It was brutal."
All the Wildcats needed to do from there was have Anu Solomon secure three snaps and take a knee three times. Time ran out and the Wildcats ran onto the field, physically taking possession of the Territorial Cup, which had been in Arizona State's clutches for the past two years.
"It's heavy. It's really heavy," Baucus said of the cup. "You don't think it would be that heavy."
Heavy? Whatever that silver cup weighs is nothing compared to the figurative weight that had been on Rodriguez's shoulders. His first year -- an 8-5 record -- was a minor miracle. His second season, another 8-5, pointed toward an even bigger future. And even as Arizona chased the South title this fall and beat Oregon for the second consecutive season, there was this chatter: "Yeah, that's great, but he needs to beat ASU.
"Really nice," he said with a smile that was part relief when asked if it was going to be nice to not have to answer the ASU question for the next year. "You try to not put more pressure on a rivalry game, but let's be honest, there is."
Arizona never trailed Friday, but the game was tied at 7, 14 and 21 before the Wildcats gained some separation with Nick Wilson's 72-yard touchdown run with 9:06 left in the third quarter. But the Sun Devils, like the Wildcats, have been a 60-minute team that's not done until the other team drives a stake through its heart.
And that's exactly what Arizona did with its defensive stop.
"People outside of us should be amazed, but within us, we knew what we were going to do before the season," said senior safety Jourdon Grandon. "We knew we had a great offense, we knew our defense was filled with seniors and we just knew that we had a shot to make a run at things."
It's still crazy. Rodriguez and his staff took what he lovingly calls his Island of Misfit Toys and crafted those players into a 10-win team, a division champ, and one that can't be counted out of the inaugural four-team College Football Playoff.
This team has a tough-guy, never-nervous redshirt freshman quarterback in Solomon, who nicely navigated the game Friday while nursing a gimpy right ankle. And a true freshman running back in Wilson, who has been a Ka'Deem Carey look-alike, with 178 yards against ASU.
A two-star recruit in linebacker Scooby Wright, who had five tackles for loss Friday and is a finalist for a trio of major national awards. A two-star recruit in sophomore receiver Samajie Grant, who caught two touchdown passes, including a weaving, cross-field 69-yarder, against ASU.
A 247-pound walk-on nose guard in Parker Zellers. A former walk-on safety in senior Jared Tevis, who has played at a high level in every game this season. A big-play senior linebacker/safety in Tra'Mayne Bondurant, who worked his way from the coaches' doghouse back to the living room and was involved in so many big plays during the Pac-12 season. He had 11 unassisted tackles vs. ASU.
Your 2014 Pac-12 South champions.
"It's a dream come true," Baucus said. "When I committed here five years ago, I thought we could build something and get to this level and we have. We have a shot to win the Pac-12. It's just incredible."
And it's all ahead of schedule.
Arizona has knocked off No. 1 teams, won major bowl games and finished as high as fourth in the final AP poll back in 1998 after a 12-1 season. But the Wildcats had never won a game like the one Friday that moved them within a step of the Pac-12 title.
"It's a heck of a path we're on, and it's critical that we stay on it," Byrne said. "If we do and have some stability with it, I think we can really have some special times ahead."
Like it was Friday against Arizona State. Like it could be next Friday against Oregon.
The special times are right here, right now.