TUCSON, Ariz. -- When Jonathan McKnight stepped in front of a Wes Lunt pass and ran it back for an uncontested touchdown early in the fourth quarter, it took Arizona from the "hope" stage to the "breathing room" stage. The upset was on.
UA pulled away from defending Big 12 champion and 18th-ranked Oklahoma State for a 59-38 win at Arizona Stadium in front of rowdy crowd of 45,602 fans Saturday night.
"Im proud of them. They hung in there," said Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez, now 2-0 in his first year with the Wildcats. "Were going to have to grind out a lot of games. This certainly wasnt comfortable until the end.
"But as I said to (another UA coach), well have to be comfortable being uncomfortable. I was uncomfortable all night. But it was a nice win. The guys played hard."
If it wasnt McKnights return for a touchdown -- which made it 45-31 -- that made Rodriguez comfortable, it could have been KaDeem Careys 25-yard touchdown run to make it 52-31 a few minutes later. Then again, it also could have been Careys 1-yard run that was the game's final score.
Either way, McKnights touchdown, which came after he stepped in front of an out pattern on a third-down play on which Lunt was facing a heavy blitz, was the turning point in what had been a back-and-forth affair.
Rodriguez called it the play of the game" -- twice -- and added that McKnight demonstrated his "great instincts."
McKnight smiled and all but agreed.
"But you have to give the offense credit -- they did their job," McKnight said.
Every UA player did in what eventually turned into the Wildcats' biggest victory since they beat No. 9 Iowa (34-27) on Sept. 18, 2010. Arizona had lost six consecutive games to ranked teams since then, all under former coach Mike Stoops.
With Saturdays victory, that era is but a memory. Rodriguez is calling the shots now.
On Saturday night, his play calling was deft, defining and dead on. And all of a sudden, Arizona has put itself in the conversation for a spot on that scoreboard ticker -- which displays scores for teams ranked in the top 25 -- that Rodriguez joked about when talking about the upset.
Does one game make Arizona football relevant? Depends whom you talk to.
"I did talk all week about us trying to make our program relevant, and the best way to be relevant is to beat a ranked team," Rodriguez said. This is a good team.
"To what degree are we relevant? I dont know, but its the first step. Weve got to follow up. If we dont follow up with another good win next week, then you wasted the effort."
Arizona faces FCS opponent South Carolina State at home next week.
The Cowboys, one of the better teams in the country over the last four years and the No. 3 team in last year's season-ending polls, couldnt solve the Wildcats after taking an early 14-0 lead. UA scored 30 consecutive points to take control and then held on for arguably its best win since that one over Iowa.
The 30 consecutive points were the most for an Oklahoma State opponent since a 34-point run by Colorado in 2005.
For Arizona, the comeback win helped exorcise the demons of Oklahoma State games past. The Wildcats had lost the last two meetings with the Cowboys, one in 2010 and one in 2011, by a combined score of 73-24.
Even this week, Rodriguez had said he'd heard players saying that they just needed to "believe, believe, believe" that they could win.
"I dont talk in terms like that, and I know you really have to believe," Rodriguez said, "but if you really prepare and you work hard, your confidence will come by how you prepare. Not from some psycho Dr. Phil moment. If you go work and play your tail off, you have a better chance."
Arizona did -- and got some help from Oklahoma State. The Cowboys were penalized for a school-record 167 yards on 15 penalties and also committed four turnovers, including two interceptions in the fourth quarter.
"Way too many mistakes, said Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy. It was poor coaching and poor playing; thats a bad combination. ...
"You cant win, cant be a good football team, and you cant win on the road, especially, playing like that."
Meanwhile, Arizona played keepaway, committing no turnovers and capitalizing on its numerous opportunities.
UA sophomore back KaDeem Carey rushed for 126 yards and three touchdowns to go along with a receiving score, and Matt Scott threw for 320 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for one more TD. The Wildcats racked up 501 total yards, and while the Cowboys had a whopping 636 of their own, the turnovers and penalties more than made up the difference.
Carey's put-away touchdown was set up by an interception by safety Jared Tevis, a former teammate of Carey's at Tucson's Canyon Canyon del Oro High School. Tevis had two interceptions on the night as part of an opportunistic Wildcats defense that also made two fourth-down stops in the second half.