ARIZONA FOOTBALL

Arizona defense forces six turnovers in Alamo Bowl victory over Oklahoma

Dec 28, 2023, 10:58 PM | Updated: Dec 29, 2023, 7:33 am

Jalil Farooq #3 of the Oklahoma Sooners is stripped of the ball by Gunner Maldonado #9 of the Arizo...

Jalil Farooq #3 of the Oklahoma Sooners is stripped of the ball by Gunner Maldonado #9 of the Arizona Wildcats in the first half at the Valero Alamo Bowl at the Alamodome on December 28, 2023, in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)

(Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)

SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Gunner Maldonado returned a fumble 87 yards for a touchdown and also had an interception as No. 14 Arizona forced six turnovers in a 38-24 comeback victory over No. 12 Oklahoma on Thursday night in the Valero Alamo Bowl.

Arizona scored 25 straight points to close the game.

“We were expecting a battle,” Wildcats coach Jedd Fisch said. “There was nothing going to be easy even though we went up 13-0 in the first quarter. The guys just kept competing.”

Maldonado’s fumble return with 2:38 remaining in the third quarter was a bowl record. The play was set up when Arizona safety Dalton Johnson hit Jalil Farooq following a short reception and the ball flew into Maldonado’s hands.

“That was just an amazing play from Dalton,” said Maldonado, who was selected the defensive MVP of the game. “He just had a great break on the ball, great hit on the guy, ball came out and my teammates just surrounded me and blocked as hard as they could all the way down and we got in the end zone.”

Big-picture win for Arizona over Oklahoma in Alamo Bowl

Noah Fifita threw for 354 yards and two touchdowns for Arizona (10-3). The Wildcats closed with seven straight victories as they depart the Pac-12 to join the Big 12 next season. Leaving the Big 12 to join the Southeastern Conference, Oklahoma also finished 10-3.

Wildcats senior Jacob Cowing, the offensive MVP, had seven receptions for 152 yards and two touchdowns. Tetairoa McMillan added 10 receptions for 160 yards for Arizona.

Oklahoma freshman Jackson Arnold threw for 361 yards and two touchdowns but also had three interceptions in his first career start. Arnold started in place of Dillon Gabriel, who is transferring to Oregon after throwing for 3,660 yards and 30 touchdowns this season.

“Those mistakes were on me,” Arnold said. “I’m going to take the full blame for that. I’ve just got to be better. I thought they put me in great positions to win tonight, but lack of execution was the problems we had tonight.”

Gavin Sawchuk ran for 130 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries for the Sooners.

Arnold opened the game 3 for 8 with two interceptions before settling in behind the running game.

With Arizona holding a 13-0 lead, Sawchuk scored on an 18-yard rushing touchdown.

Oklahoma took a 14-13 lead when Arnold scrambled to his left to escape heavy pressure and tossed a 10-yard pass to a sliding Nic Anderson in the left corner of the end zone. The touchdown was set up by a 62-yard run by Sawchuk and 19-yard carry by Arnold.

Arnold’s second pass of the game was intercepted by freshman safety Genesis Smith, who jumped the route at the 35-yard line for his first career pick.

“We’ve got to be a little better around him, help him,” Oklahoma coach Brent Venables said. “I don’t want to speak the obvious, but you’re not going to win when you lose the turnover margin 6-1.”

Fifita tossed a 35-yard touchdown pass to Cowing on the ensuing play to give Arizona a 10-0 lead with 4:27 into the game.

Arnold’s second interception of the first quarter came when Maldonado ran from the right hashmark to step in front of the receiver and then tapped both feet inbounds.

Arizona had 181 yards in the first quarter to Oklahoma’s 36.

After finishing 1-11 in 2021, the Wildcats end the season with a victory in their first bowl appearance since 2017.

“There were some dark times that first year,” Johnson said. “This win means everything. We came a long way. This whole team, this whole staff, this whole facility deserves it.”

Looking ahead

Arizona: The young tandem of Fifita and McMillan continued to dazzle, especially early. McMillan had 74 yards receiving in the first quarter on five catches off six targets.

Oklahoma: Arnold demonstrated at times why he was the 2022 Gatorade National Football Player of the Year at Guyer High School in Denton, but it was also apparent he had never started in college. Arnold stared down his receivers at times and floated passes, which led to the three interceptions.

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