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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    A close loss is no longer good enough

    UA quarterback Willie Tuitama (7) consoles linebacker Xavier Kelley after the Wildcats 17-10 loss to then-No. 6 USC Saturday night at Arizona Stadium. The Wildcats still need to win one of their four remaining games to be eligible for the teams first bowl berth in a decade.
    UA quarterback Willie Tuitama (7) consoles linebacker Xavier Kelley after the Wildcats’ 17-10 loss to then-No. 6 USC Saturday night at Arizona Stadium. The Wildcats still need to win one of their four remaining games to be eligible for the team’s first bowl berth in a decade.

    If the Arizona football team kept any game close with Southern California in years past, it would have been considered a moral victory. In fact, keeping the game respectable was almost the goal.

    Last season when the Wildcats kept it close with the Trojans in Los Angeles, there was satisfaction stemming from Arizona’s effort.

    This season, however, after the Wildcats lost to the then-No. 6 Trojans 17-10 at Arizona Stadium on Saturday night with first place in the Pacific 10 Conference ripped out of their hands, the team was dejected and disappointed.

    There was no consolation prize.

    It’s quite the testament in terms of how far the Arizona football program has come along this year under head coach Mike Stoops. The Wildcats went toe-to-toe with one of the best teams in the country and it wasn’t a fluke.

    “”In the past it would be something to feel good about because we hung with USC and they’re a top-notch team,”” said offensive lineman Joe Longacre. “”This year it hurts bad because we want to be a top-notch team and we feel like we are a top-notch team. We really let them off the hook, and we are not playing for close. It really hurts that we couldn’t win this one.””

    And what is a bigger sign of the program’s growth is that the Wildcats sincerely feel they could keep it close – or win – every time against USC.

    “”They are a good team, but they’ve got to work against us. A lot of us feel like we should have won, coaches and players,”” said senior safety Nate Ness. “”We gave them everything we had and we were playing smash-mouth ball with them, and they really couldn’t get anything on us.””

    The thing that stood out to Stoops the most – and just about everyone watching the game – was Arizona’s ability to match up with USC’s athletes across the board.

    Though Arizona’s statistics were in question given the level of competition it had previously faced, no longer do the numbers the Wildcats put up defensively look like a fraud.

    What would have been something to hang their hat on in the past could continue to keep players thinking through the bye week about what could have been.

    While Arizona lost by a mere seven points, the game could have been considered even closer than the small deficit indicated when the game ended.

    A seemingly endless pile of mistakes, penalties and instances of plain old bad luck could be considered the difference in the game.

    What the game boiled down to was about five plays that could have made for a completely different outcome had they gone differently. But for Arizona, each of these plays was a setback rather than a turning point.

    The first mistake could have cost Arizona an opportunity to change the pace of the game.

    After USC took a 3-0 lead in the first quarter, Arizona got down to USC’s 1-yard line for what would have been a first and goal, but a late hit by offensive lineman James Tretheway pushed Arizona back to the 16, which eventually forced the Wildcats to settle for a field goal. A touchdown could have altered the momentum of the game.

    It was a call most of the squad thought was rather questionable.

    “”I have never seen that called on the 1-yard line. Never in my life have I seen that,”” Stoops said. “”It is just frustrating, but that’s just how it goes. They said he hit after the whistle and the guy was trying to get in the end zone, I thought. That’s a judgment call and the referee made it and you live with it.””

    The Arizona defense certainly went above the call of duty in the game, but the Wildcats’ life was lost when they were unable to convert on a fourth down and inches near midfield with clock below five minutes in the fourth quarter.

    On a play in which quarterback Willie Tuitama had to just fall back to the line of scrimmage to get a good enough spot, the Wildcats couldn’t create enough push to get the first down and continue on with a potential game-tying drive. “”I don’t even know how you don’t get that,”” Stoops said of the fourth down conversion attempt. “”That may be the first time I haven’t seen that. Just by falling forward or (the) spot you always get it, and they just got way too much push and that was very disappointing.””

    And then there was the ending of the game.

    As time expired, all Arizona had left was a punt return attempt by receiver Mike Thomas. The final second ticked off the clock and as Thomas was about to be brought down, he pitched the ball to wide out Derick Barkum, one of Arizona’s fastest players, who kept the play alive.

    Barkum exploded down the Arizona sideline, looking as if he was going to take it to the house to tie the game with a miraculous return that would have made for one of the biggest moments in Arizona football history, but the USC athletes tracked him down at the Trojans 29-yard line.

    “”We had a lot of opportunities and we just couldn’t convert on them, so that was disappointing,”” Stoops said. “”(Against) most teams (Barkum’s return) probably would have went, but (USC) is so gifted athletically that they were able to run it down.””

    While the Wildcats’ seven-point loss isn’t a moral victory, perhaps it suggests they’re that close to being a Pac-10 power.


    – Ari Wasserman is a journalism senior. He can be reached at sports@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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