2011 was a season that began with so many questions; with an offensive line forced to replace all five starters, a defensive line that had to replace three NFL draft picks, and a schedule that was as brutal as any in the country through the first five weeks of the season.
Almost predictably, Arizona was blown out on national television in three consecutive weeks, lost a game that wasn't as close as the final score at USC, and was embarrassed by an Oregon State team that entered the contest without a victory.
The first five games of 2011 cost Mike Stoops his job, as Tim Kish was called upon to take over a team that had not defeated an FBS opponent since October 2010. That all changed in Kish's first game at the helm with a 48-12 victory over UCLA, but the Wildcats stumbled in their next three contests with losses to Washington, Utah, and Colorado in consecutive weeks.
But last Saturday night, Kish and the Wildcats gave Arizona fans a reason to forget all of the pain, frustration, and embarrassment of the 2011 season lost weeks ago when it defeated Arizona State 31-27 in Tempe in what surely will go down as one of the best games in the Pac-12 in 2011.
For the players, their reaction after winning the game was as if it had won the Pac-12 title and they were headed for the Rose Bowl. They came together, they laughed and they cried; over come by the emotions of everything they'd been through in 2011 before the clock ran out on Saturday night.
It was a victory unlike any UA fans have seen in a very, very long time. The team had every reason to give up, to give in, and accept defeat. But for the first time this season, when adversity tested their resolve, the Wildcats pushed back.
It would have been easy to get down after a 3rd quarter in which the offense managed just 53 total yards. With virtually no success moving the ball with long passes, Gino Crump and Juron Criner, a pair of seniors whose careers at Arizona have virtually nothing in common, rose to the occasion and fought their way through defender after defender for long scores.
No one would have blamed UA for folding when its senior quarterback went down in the middle of one of the most important drives of the season. It likely would've been chalked up to the same misfortune and negativity that has plagued the 2011 season. It would've been almost fitting for the Wildcats to lose in that way considering the way things have gone this season.
Enter Bryson Beirne, a senior who entered the game in place of Nick Foles with 10 career pass attempts. While no one will likely remember those first 10 passes, his 11th pass will certainly go down as one of the most dramatic and memorable plays in the history of the Territorial Cup game.
There wouldn't have been a fan that would have been upset, or frankly surprised, if Beirne entered the game and didn't deliver. After all, the scenario he found himself in was highly unfamiliar for Foles' backup. Usually brought in with the game securely won or out of hand, Beirne was being asked to step into during the biggest drive of the season and guide the offense to the end zone and the lead.
It would have been easy to put their heads down and accept that it simply wasn't in the cards. Not on Saturday, and not in 2011. Luckily UA kept its collective head up, or it would have missed the play that likely will define Juron Criner's Arizona career. It would have missed Beirne's 11th attempt, the most important of his time at UA, and perhaps the touchdown that will define the season.
After Saturday's victory, no one cared that the defense surrendered 548 yards and likely cemented its position as the worst unit in the Pac-12; all due to the fact that it didn't give up 563 yards.
With just nine seconds on the clock and ASU on the UA 15 yard line, the defense dug in its heels for what seemed like the first time this season and came up with the consecutive stops it needed. Shaquille Richardson, who had struggled all game long, redeemed himself by breaking up Brock Osweiler's final pass and securing the Arizona victory.
The clock ran out with the scoreboard reading Arizona: 31, Arizona State: 27. Players, coaches, trainers, and staff spilled onto the field and celebrated the Wildcats' victory. Amongst all the excitement from the team, the coaches could be seen celebrating joyously as well.
After all, they've been through a lot themselves. They lost the man that gave them all their jobs; and while Stoops was shown the door after a 1-5 start, these coaches were charged with coaching this team in its remaining six games. They stuck around and worked tirelessly for an Arizona team that had virtually nothing left to play for.
All of the highs and lows of the ensuing four games were all forgotten on Saturday night, as the coaches celebrated passionately with the team they've invested so much time in. That dedication wasn't for a job at Arizona next year, and it wasn't a shot at the Pac-12 title. The coaches invested their time because they care about their players, even if this is likely the last Pac-12 game they'll have together.
Because let's be honest, when (insert future coach's name here from long list of rumored candidates), their staff is likely to be entirely different from the one Arizona had in 2011. For the players and the coaches, Saturday's victory is something memorable to hold onto in an otherwise forgettable season, a memory for them to treasure for all their days.
A new coach may be on the way, and even if he brings in an entirely new coaching staff, he'll have a hard time replacing the memories of Saturday's game in the minds of Arizona's players and (likely) soon-to-be former coaches.
Speaking of the new coach (whoever he may be), Saturday's win will make his transition to the helm at Arizona much smoother. After all, with the offseason less than a week away, defeating Arizona State brings 2011 to a close on a high note. That should give Greg Byrne's hire the momentum he will need to bring Arizona back to relevancy in 2012.
Arizona football showed a level of passion, determination, toughness, and enthusiasm that has eluded it all season long. In an otherwise mediocre season, Saturday's victory over Arizona State gave the 2012 team a standard, a glimpse of what it can achieve when everything comes together in the right way.
With the right hire, Arizona football has a chance to bounce back in 2012 and make the things that were good about Saturday night's victory regular occurrences next season. Changes are on the way, but UA will look to keep those things constant as it looks to rebuild next year.
If Arizona has a big year in 2012, the fans, the players, and the new coaching staff can look back to its victory on November 19, 2011 as the day it turned the corner and put the misery and disappointment of the 2011 season behind it.
Until then, Arizona fans and players will enjoy the win and the wave of positive emotions that have come as a result of Saturday's win. They haven't earned much this season, but at the very least, they have earned that right.