Center preserves win

By Eric Wein

Arizona Daily Wildcat

UA center Hicham El-Mashtoub, who played on the defensive line during his freshman year, made a defensive play in the closing minutes Saturday that most likely salvaged the Wildcats' chances of holding the lead in the Pac-10.

Washington State's dominating defense had stripped the ball out of Ontiwaun Carter's hands on the Arizona 41 with 2:27 left in the game and Mark Fields was dashing for a probable go-ahead touchdown for the Cougars.

But El-Mashtoub wouldn't allow that. He made a last-gasp, diving tackle to halt Fields on the 28. Had the Cougars scored on that play they would have taken a commanding lead in the closing minutes of the game, a game that proved to be difficult offensively for both teams.

A touchdown would have virtually sealed the game for the Cougars. Instead, the game ended with the Wildcats on top 10-7, as Washington State placekicker Tony Truant went wide left on a field goal try in the final minute.

For the second straight year, the Cougars' hopes were dashed on a wide left field goal.

El-Mashtoub's play also prevented Arizona from losing because of a touchdown fumble return for the second straight week.

"I think it's just a reaction, a good reaction," UA coach Dick Tomey said yesterday of El-Mashtoub's tackle. "It was a big play for us, there were so many big plays."

Tomey said his thoughts weren't of devastation.

"As a coach you're not thinking, 'Oh god, we're doomed," Tomey said. "We just think of the next play. Here we go."

Tomey credited Matt Peyton's punting (nine punts, 40.9 average) as a difference in the game along with the performances of Akil Jackson (seven tackles,

three sacks) and Chris Lopez (seven tackles, one sack) on defense.

After the devastating loss to Colorado State, the Wildcats appeared they had an attitude change from their performance against the Cougars.

"I think there was always a sense of confidence," Tomey said. "There is a renewed sense pride and knowedge of what it takes to win."

The Wildcats survived the cold to remain undefeated and keep their dash toward Pac-10 supremacy very much intact. But the final five games remaining, the next of those being against UCLA (2-5, 0-4) at Arizana Stadium 12:30 p.m. Saturday, will decide Arizona's fate.

"The task this week is coming off a great win," Tomey said. "We have a huge job. UCLA has a lot of attributes of a good football team but they've been injured. From what I understand, they're going to have a lot of those guys back.

"When an opponent is desperate, I think it makes them more dangerous than they would be in any other circumstance."

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