STANFORD, Calif. – It took two quarterbacks to finish the task, but the Arizona Wildcats were able to squeak out a Pac-12 Conference road win over the Stanford Cardinal, 21-20.
Filling in for injured starter Jayden de Laura, backup quarterback Noah Fifita led the Wildcats on a 67-yard game-winning drive in the fourth quarter for the win. But on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in Northern California, the dramatic finish at Stanford Stadium was mostly a subplot to a much bigger story.
The game served as the first of many lasts for the storied Pac-12.
For players like Stanford defensive lineman Anthony Franklin, who grew up watching the Pac-12 and now has the privilege to be a part of it on the field, the moment literally hit close to home.
A Phoenix native and graduate of Pinnacle High School, Franklin grew up going to Arizona State football games. His grandfather Mike Krofchik played football at ASU, and his mother attended Arizona. In 2021, Franklin’s freshman year, Stanford traveled to Tempe in October.
“It’s been great to go home and play in front of my friends and family in Arizona,” Franklin said. “I think the rich history we have between all these schools is what I’m going to miss the most.”
After 31 conference matchups spanning 44 years between the two programs, Saturday marked the final time Arizona and Stanford will face off as Pac-12 foes. It is one of many familiar matchups in the league that come to an end this fall.
Conference leadership was unable to secure a new media rights deal to avoid a breakup, and the 108-year-old conference will fold following the season, leaving behind decades of memories.
Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah are headed to the Big 12 in 2024. USC, UCLA, Washington and Oregon will depart for the Big Ten. Stanford and California will move to the ACC, leaving only Oregon State and Washington State behind.
The conference’s geographic proximity allows for frequent homecomings, as players return to where it all began, with friends and family in the stands.
Arizona backup running back Jonah Coleman, a Stockton, California native, got one last chance to play in the Bay Area and made the most of it. Coleman compiled 104 all-purpose yards, including 75 rushing yards on just 12 carries.
“I asked him, actually, before the game, ‘How far is home?’” said Arizona coach Jedd Fisch. “It’s a two-hour drive to Stockton, and he said this game meant a lot to him.”
Coleman had 81 of his all-purpose yards in the first half, keeping Arizona afloat as the Wildcats’ offense struggled.
“All Jonah does is work,” Fisch said. “He doesn’t get nearly enough accolades sometimes. He’s over a 3.5 (grade point average), coming from a situation where it has been a lot of new stuff. And you look at how he played when he walked out on the field today. I’m really proud of Jonah.”
It was also a special day for one of Coleman’s teammates on the defensive side of the ball. In his fourth year of Pac-12 football, Daniel Heimuli got his first opportunity to play at Stanford Stadium, just 3 miles down the road from where he grew up. The Wildcats linebacker is from East Palo Alto, and after a redshirt year and then three seasons at Washington, he transferred to Arizona.
In his one and only opportunity to play for the Wildcats back home, Heimuli had a solo tackle and three assists against the Cardinal.
Meanwhile, Stanford’s Franklin was getting his chance to play against a team from his home state for the final time Saturday. The National Honors Society member shined, recording five tackles and sharing a quarterback sack with fellow defensive lineman Zach Buckey.
Franklin said his fondest Pac-12 memory came during his freshman year in a game at Stanford Stadium.
“A Pac-12 game that I’m sure all of the Stanford people remember is when we beat Oregon my freshman year in 2021,” Franklin said. “No. 3 Oregon came here, and we were able to beat them in overtime. And it was just a great time.”
With 1:44 remaining in that game, the Cardinal trailed 24-17 with the ball on their own 4-yard line. They drove the length of the field to score the tying touchdown on the final play of regulation, and won in the extra period, 31-24.
It was the sort of thrilling finish that Pac-12 fans have come to expect, especially during games featured on ESPN’s Pac-12 After Dark broadcasts.
Next season, after the Pac-12 goes dark, Arizona will travel to many Midwest outposts. For Stanford, moving to the ACC means joining a conference with a vast majority of its members located on the East Coast.
It means lots of travel for the Cardinal, but Franklin also sees it as an opportunity for new experiences.
“It’s definitely going to be a little bit different, but I’m sure we’ll be prepared,” he said. “I’m just excited to play against schools I haven’t seen before. It’ll be exciting to experience those new stadiums, and I’m sure they’ll be excited to come out and play here in California as well.”
For now, Arizona and Stanford are focused on their farewell Pac-12 season. In its final football campaign, the Conference of Champions is certainly flexing its muscle, making for what could be a bittersweet conclusion.
Entering Saturday, the conference had a combined 29-5 record in non-conference play, including 7-3 in non-conference Power 5 games. There are still six Pac-12 teams ranked among the Associated Press Top 25 after Colorado and UCLA fell out following losses to Pac-12 foes.
“It is a phenomenal conference,” Fisch said. “If you look around right now, it’s got great football going on. There were eight teams ranked going into this weekend. The Pac-12 is a great conference of football, and we’re going to do everything we can to keep it that way for the next eight weeks, and then have an unbelievable Pac-12 Championship Game.”