BERKELEY, Calif. — Arizona running back Zach Green couldn’t bring himself to watch California’s two-point conversion attempt in overtime and instead stared at his helmet.
Tight end Bryce Wolma tried to look away, too, but forced himself to take a peek — just in time to see freshman linebacker Colin Schooler’s game-saving deflection.
“I was looking at the scoreboard throughout overtime when we were on defense,” said Wolma, whose touchdown moments earlier put the Wildcats ahead. “The very last played I turned. I’m like, `I have to watch this.’ I’m glad I did.”
Quarterback Khalil Tate ran for 137 yards and a touchdown and passed for two more, including a 22-yarder to Wolma in the second overtime, and Arizona held on to beat California 45-44 on Saturday night.
The two teams combined for 984 yards of offense but it was Schooler’s defensive play that made the difference.
Green scored the Wildcats touchdown in the first overtime and had a 3-yard run to open the second extra period before Tate scrambled in the backfield to avoid a sack and found Wolma open near the goal line for the game-winner.
California answered with Vic Enwere’s 1-yard touchdown run but came up short on the two-point conversion try when Schooler knocked away Ross Bowers’ pass intended for Jordan Duncan near the back of the end zone.
“We felt like the overtime two-point was that our best chance to win,” Cal coach Justin Wilcox said. “It was my call. We were playing to win the game and that’s what I felt like was the best.”
That the Bears went for two instead of trying to force a third overtime rankled some of the Wildcats defenders.
“We took it kind of personally how they thought that they could go for two when they didn’t need to,” Schooler said. “Luckily they didn’t get it.”
Bowers completed 29 of 49 throws for 301 yards and two touchdowns, one in the first overtime, but was intercepted twice.
The Wildcats (5-2, 3-1 Pac-12) wasted leads of 21-7 and 28-14 before holding off the Bears (4-4, 1-4).
That bodes well for coach Rich Rodriguez’s team, which is heading into the meaty portion of its schedule. Arizona next plays No. 15 Washington State in Tucson followed by a road game at No. 11 Southern California on Nov. 4.
“The difference at the end just came down to making plays,” Rodriguez said. “They had a good play called. We just had a freshman step up and make a big play.”
Tate continued to give Arizona’s offense a lift. The Wildcats sophomore quarterback has rushed for 694 yards and passed for 468 in three games since replacing Brandon Dawkins.
Arizona outrushed California 345-172, a big chunk coming on Tate’s 76-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. The Wildcats did so despite losing running back J.J. Taylor to an ejection in the first half.
California tied the game in the fourth on Patrick Laird’s 8-yard touchdown run with 5:07 remaining in regulation. The two teams then exchanged field goals before Arizona missed a chance to win in regulation when Tate’s deep throw was intercepted by Ashtyn Davis at the California 1.
Like Colorado and UCLA before them, the Bears tried loading the box in order to limit Tate’s scrambling. While he easily eclipsed the 150-yard mark for the third consecutive game, Tate’s rushing yards were his fewest since taking over at quarterback.
“They didn’t like just all of a sudden Cal started loading the box up or bringing safeties down fast,” Rodriguez said. “(Defenses) have been doing this for 2-3 weeks now.”
Before Saturday, Arizona last played California in 2014 when the Wildcats won on a Hail Mary pass as time expired.
“Coming here I was aware of (that) Hail Mary pass,” Tate said. “Being in this game kind of made it seem like it’s something that Cal and Arizona is destined to do.”
This was a big win for Rodriguez’s team. The Wildcats had two players ejected and lost linebacker Tony Fields to an injury in the fourth quarter but hung on for the win. They did it after twice blowing 14-point leads. With the next two games coming against ranked opponents, Arizona has a chance to prove its worth in the Pac-12.
Arizona returns to Tucson to host No. 15 Washington State on Oct. 28. The Wildcats have dropped two straight and three of four to the Cougars.