TUCSON, Ariz. -- In 1:26, junior Arizona quarterback Nick Foles turned a dream into a nightmare for the Cal football team.
With just under three minutes to play, Foles led Arizona on a seven-play, 1:26, 77-yard drive that keyed on a 51-yard back-breaking pass to Juron Criner, a play that set the stage for a 9-3 Bears lead to melt into a 10-9 Wildcats win in the hot desert night.
"When he threw it, it was complete silence," Criner said. "I blocked the crowd out. I knew there was a player down there fighting for it, but I knew I was coming down with it."
After the 51-yard completion, a six-yard Nic Grigsby run and an offsides call backed Cal up to its own three-yard line, Foles hit Criner again for the decisive-and the game's only-touchdown.
Arizona head coach Mike Stoops-who spent most of the game in a frenzy over his team's 10 penalties for 99 yards-was decidedly calmer in his assessment after the game.
"This was another great finish," said Stoops. "We didn't play well on offense tonight; we had no rhythm and made a lot of mistakes. There were too many selfish plays, and we lacked discipline. This was another 12- or 13-penalty night [sic], and there's a lot to be thankful for. They covered Juron very well tonight, but he got around them when it mattered most."
Criner didn't practice until Thursday this week, and even putting him on the field was a game-time decision, but it paid off in the end, as he not only hauled in that 51-yard strike, but four more passes for a total of 68 yards.
"The defense played great. They played their tails off. They pressured the passer. (Arizona) got one big play at the end of the game that set them up," said Cal head coach Jeff Tedford. "You have to give them credit. They made the play, and we didn't."
As if that weren't enough to crush spirits, the Bears (2-2, 0-1 in the Pac-10) took possession again with 1:06 left, and after senior quarterback Kevin Riley completed two passes for 16 yards, he uncorked one downfield for junior Marvin Jones. But, instead of a 19-yard completion, the play turned into an 18-yard interception return by Joseph Perkins, icing the game for the Wildcats (4-0, 1-0).
"The interception? It went off Marvin's hands and got intercepted," railed a clearly-incensed Tedford. "What else do you want to know about it?"
Tedford was blunt in his summation of the game's final series.
"Absolutely, unbelievably disappointing," Tedford fumed after the game. "Just absolutely, unbelievably disappointed."
The team saw a virtuoso performance on defense and Shane Vereen's seventh career 100-yard game just evaporate in the hot Arizona night. In less than a minute and a half, the Bears went from exultation at the thought of winning in Tucson for the first time since 2004, to heart-rending, agonizing torment of yet another disappointing loss, their second in two weeks.
Senior safety Chris Conte was choking back tears and shaking with emotion as he stood outside the locker room. He's seen this before. Twice. Once, while still a recruit in 2006, when Lavelle Hawkins tripped on a yard line, and once in 2008 as a sophomore, when Keola Antolin led the Wildcats to three, third-quarter touchdowns.
"I don't want to think about this game anymore, I just want to get back on the field; I wish we could play tomorrow," Conte said. "I wish we could strap it back up and play Arizona again, because I know that if we played again, we'd beat them. We'd beat them nine times out of 10."
Junior outside linebacker Mychal Kendricks, who had two sacks, echoed Conte's desire to strap it back on and go as soon as possible, in the face of the upcoming bye week before homecoming against UCLA, which upset No. 6 Texas in Austin on Saturday.
"I would much rather play," Kendricks said. "I mean, this happened so we can take it onto the next team. We'll take this bye to recover and then really bring it on to our next opponent."
As it stands, the Bears defense at least can take some positives from the game. They turned in easily one of their signature performances of the year, sacking Foles three times, putting him on his back several more and keeping up constant pressure against the spread offense.
"It's disappointing any time you lose, and we had an opportunity to make some plays there on that last drive, and we just didn't get it done," said defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast. "I thought the guys played hard, they executed the plan, the things that we worked on all week, for the most part-without watching the tape-I thought that the guys were in the right spots."
On the 51-yard pass that turned out to be the difference in the game, Pendergast said that cornerback Darian Hagan was in position to make a play, but just got beat.
"It looked like Darian was in position, and they both went up for the football and the other kid obviously came down with it," Pendergast said. "They made a play, and we didn't in that situation."
Hagan was third on the defense with six tackles and had a pass break-up, but wasn't able to wrench the ball out of Criner's hands.
"Juron is a big-time playmaker," Foles said. "At the end, I knew I could go to him. I just threw it and knew he was going to catch it."
Cal held Arizona to just 99 yards on the ground, tallied six tackles for loss to the tune of 26 yards, forced two fumbles and broke up four passes. The Wildcats had been averaging 242.33 yards on the ground per game coming in.
The Bears held Arizona to just 212 yards passing, when the Wildcats had sported the No. 6 air attack in the nation, averaging 330.33 yards through the air in their first three games. Clearly, it was a performance against the spread the likes of which Bears fans haven't seen for a very long time.
"We've got a new defensive coordinator in Coach P, and he just taught us some things that worked out pretty great today," said senior defensive end Cameron Jordan. "We executed the game plan pretty well, D-line movements went pretty well. I have nothing bad to say. My guys were just great. I'm proud of all of them."
The Bears executed the defensive game plan to perfection, a far cry from the 52-point debacle against Nevada.
"To come back off of that Nevada loss, where, I know we were embarrassed, to show an effort like this, it's a great feeling, but to come short like that, man, it hurts, bad," said Conte, who had a then-game-saving interception in the end zone to finish off the first half. "I've never been a part of a football game that hurts more than this game. Not in my life. Never. This is the worst I've ever felt after the game, by far."
Conte had that pick and a game-high eight tackles on the night, but looked visibly sick when he heard his numbers.
"It makes it hurt more," Conte said. "I just, I just did what Coach Pendergast wanted me to do. I tried to execute, and I felt like I played a pretty good game, and then, to lose like that, man, it makes it hurt. It makes it hurt really bad."
Conte and the Cal defense made life hard for the Wildcats, but the Bears' offense was just as frustrated. Riley went just 13-for-26 for 116 yards through the air and was largely denied perhaps his best target in freshman Keenan Allen, who, despite constant pronouncements all week by the coaching staff that he was 100 percent, saw very, very limited action and had just one run for six yards on the same double-reverse play that he ran against UC Davis, and a nine-yard catch for a first-down on the ill-fated final drive.
Cal called 36 total rushing attempts to 27 passing plays, including an unsuccessful halfback pass from Vereen to Riley.
But when Vereen was doing his normal duty-toting the rock-he continued off of his strong performance against Nevada, running 102 yards on 27 touches against the nation's No. 22 rushing defense.
"We knew it was going to be a grinder, we knew it was going to be a battle for four quarters," Vereen said. "We're going to be kicking ourselves tomorrow, looking at the film and seeing the touchdowns we could have made, plays that were left out there. But, all in all, I'm proud of the way we played. We ground it out, just didn't have enough at the end."
This was the third straight loss for the Bears in Tucson, a fact not lost on an irate Tedford, who threw open the doors to the locker room before giving a few, terse and tense comments to the press.
Of Vereen, Tedford said simply that he "played his ass off."
On Giorgio Tavecchio-the man who was in-line to be the hero before Arizona's final drive, and who was asked to kick multiple field goals for the first time this season-Tedford was matter-of-fact.
"Well, the three were good. Two weren't. It just happened to be enough for the game," he said. "But, he can't get down. He'll come back. We have faith in Giorgio."
Tavecchio hit a season-long 40-yarder in the first half and went 3-for-5 in field goal attempts, but it was his second 40-yard try that proved the most crucial. His fourth-quarter attempt from the right hash mark sailed wide right, giving the Wildcats the ball at their own 23 to set up the game-winning drive.
"I felt like I did everything right, but the results on the field just weren't there," Tavecchio said. "It was just disappointing."
Asked how one rationalizes the one-point loss after such a stellar defensive effort, Jordan sighed.
"You don't," he said. "It's the Pac-10 conference, two great teams going at it, and they just capitalized on their plays more than we did."
Jordan also said that this was perhaps the toughest loss he's ever had to endure.
"I think I'd put this up there with my freshman year ASU game," Jordan said. "It's a tough loss to swallow.
"You know, I think our defense played great, our offense did really well, we got in scoring positions a couple of times, we came out with a couple field goals, and I'm very proud of our Cal offense-defense connection. I'm proud of our secondary. They stepped up today. Marc Anthony had a great game, I think, D-Hag (Darian Hagan) did great, our D-line, Deandre (Coleman) rotated in and did a great job. I have nothing bad to say about anything. I think we played one heck of a game and I'd like to watch it on film and see how we can improve."
Though Pendergast's defense made his homecoming a night to remember, he was all business as he took stock of the evening.
"It's disappointing; I thought the guys played hard," Pendergast said. "They executed what we practiced all week. I haven't seen the tape, obviously, but I think we did a lot of what we wanted to do. There are no moral victories. I told the guys all week that this game would come down to the last drive, and Arizona made the plays in the end."