Aug 31, 2001
By BERNIE WILSON
AP Sports Writer
SAN DIEGO (AP) - John Mackovic was on the sidelines for the first time since 1997, looking spiffy in a black suit and getting a wild win in his debut as the Arizona Wildcats' head coach.
Safety Brandon Nash returned a fumble 57 yards for a touchdown and Andrae Thurman blocked a punt for a safety as the Wildcats rallied from an awful start to beat San Diego State 23-10 on Thursday night in the season opener for both teams.
"It's great to be part of the game and great to be back on the sidelines," Mackovic said. "I made up my mind I was going to enjoy the game no matter what. I'm happy. I'm real thrilled for the kids. That's what they worked so hard for. They're the ones who play."
Junior quarterback Jason Johnson made his first career start and threw his first touchdown pass, a 4-yarder to Brandon Marshall in the third quarter. Marshall is from suburban Oceanside.
Mackovic was hired in December after spending the previous three seasons as an ESPN college football analyst. He kept Arizona's trademark defense, but installed a pro passing offense. Mackovic had coached for 17 years at Texas, Illinois, the Kansas City Chiefs and Wake Forest.
He replaced Dick Tomey, who resigned after the Wildcats lost their last five games of 2000 to finish 5-6.
San Diego State, 3-8 last year, lost its 10th straight game to a Pac-10 opponent, including four straight to the Wildcats dating to 1997.
Nash's fumble return gave the Wildcats the lead for good at 16-10 with 2:56 left before halftime. On fourth-and-one, San Diego State's Larry Ned ran into a wall of Wildcats, with tackle Young Thompson forcing the fumble. Nash recovered and ran untouched for the score. Thurman caught Johnson's conversion pass.
"The turnovers hurt us," Aztecs coach Ted Tollner said. "You can't turn the ball over on fourth and less than one, and 10 seconds later have eight points for your opponent. That was really a critical play. I felt we could make three-quarters of a yard."
Arizona trailed 10-0 with 3:04 left in the first quarter after a botched punt led to Ned's 1-yard touchdown run.
With Arizona at its 41, Joe Siofele snapped the ball over punter Ramey Peru's head. Peru ran down the ball, then kicked it through the end zone. He was flagged for illegal kicking, giving the Aztecs the ball on the 1. They needed just one play for Ned to score.
On Arizona's next drive, Sean Keel banged a 40-yard field goal attempt off the right upright.
"Our guys never acted like they were in a panic," Mackovic said. "They just continued to play and looked for an opportunity to get a break. We just kept playing."
Arizona's luck finally changed when Thurman blocked Brian Simnjanovski's punt through the end zone for a safety with 12:32 dropped the snap and picked it up, only to have Thurman blocked it through the end zone for a safety.
Johnson, who'd thrown just 11 passes the last two seasons, then led the Wildcats on a 67-yard scoring drive capped by Clarence Farmer's 12-yard run to close to 10-8. The conversion pass failed.
Thurman caught a 41-yard pass over the middle to highlight the drive, and the Wildcats gained from another SDSU special teams mistake. As Arizona lined up to try a 37-yard field goal, San Diego State's Jerome Haywood hit the ball while trying to draw the Wildcats offside, drawing a delay penalty and giving Arizona fourth-and-two from the SDSU 15.
Arizona went for it, with Farmer gaining three yards. He scored on the next play.
Johnson completed 21 of 32 passes for 176 yards, with one interception. SDSU's Lon Sheriff was 15-of-30 for 138 yards before being replaced by Adam Hall in the fourth quarter.
San Diego State's Tommy Kirovski kicked a 23-yard field goal in the first quarter.