The memory of that huge upset of a Top-10 opponent about this time last year has begun to fade for Arizona football fans, replaced by more recent memories of failed attempts to repeat the feat.
Friday’s loss to Oklahoma State is just the last jolt of reality for Wildcat fans.
It was September 19, 2010, when Mike Stoops led his troops into Arizona Stadium to play before a sell-out crowd that was excited about a team that featured one of the most explosive offenses in the country – and had beaten their first two opponents by a combined score of 93-8.
The Cats responded to all the love by running up a 20-0 halftime lead and then went on to beat the No. 9 Iowa Hawkeyes, 34-27. It was the signature win that Stoops had been looking for since arriving in Tucson seven years earlier.
After beating California in the next game, Arizona shot up the national rankings into the Top 10. The No. 9 ranking was the highest the program had reached in 12 years.
Before long, however, Stoops’ world would be turned upside down. His Cats finished the year with five consecutive losses, including an embarrassing 36-10 beat-down by Oklahoma State in the Alamo Bowl. It was a devastating close to a season that had begun 7-1 and held so much promise.
But, as a new season dawned a couple of weeks ago, there were the Cowboys again, the second game on the 2011 schedule.
Just two games after the bowl loss, Arizona got another shot at the Cowboys. However, the result was almost identical: a 37-14 loss.
Oddly enough, Oklahoma State was ranked No. 9 in the country coming into the game – just as Iowa was the No. 9 team when Arizona upset the Hawkeyes last year.
There’s an old saying: Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. Nowhere is that more true than in coaching. When you get a second chance at an opponent, you prove your worth as a coach by being better prepared than the first time.
That didn’t appear to be the case Friday night.
The Cowboys shot out to a 21-0 lead, scoring on their first three drives of the night, and rolled to a relatively easy win. Senior QB Nick Foles threw for 398 yards, but the Cats’ running game never showed up for the game in Stillwater.
To make matters worse, Arizona’s rival down the road not only showed they could hold their own against a ranked team, they beat them. Arizona State matched touchdowns all through their game with No. 19 Missouri and eventually pulled out a dramatic overtime win, 37-30.
ASU, too, rolled through a soft opener, beating UC-Davis, 48-14. But that proved to be just a warm-up for the main event, as the Sun Devils overcame 110 yards in penalties in the Missouri game to take down a ranked opponent for the first time since 2007.
Junior quarterback Brent Osweiler completed 24-of-32 for 353 yards in just the third start of his career, and his favorite target, wide receiver Aaron Pflugrad, pulled in eight passes for 180 yards.
Arizona State gets off to a 2-0 start and appears to be confirming pre-season projections as a contender for the first Pac-12 crown. And might also be validating head coach Dennis Erickson’s ability to bring the program back to the national stage after three straight losing seasons.
The win elevated the Sun Devils into the AP Top 25 this week, entering at No. 22. They’re ranked No. 18 in the USA Today/Coaches poll.
Conversely, Arizona’s elevator is going down. And Stoops’ job security along with it.
The coach has had winning seasons the last three years, including back-to-back 8-3 marks in 2008 and 2009, before squeaking out a 7-6 finish last year. His path back to respectability has been a slow, steady progression since taking over a 2-10 program eight years ago.
He has notched at least one win over a ranked opponent in each year.
But what is going to stick in the minds of the fans, and the administration, are two straight bowl losses – both in convincing fashion. The loss this year in the Alamo Bowl was preceded the year before by a 33-0 humbling by Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl.
And now Oklahoma State, after running over the Cats just a couple of games ago, backs the car over them to leave an indelible imprint.
Add to that the season-ending loss to rival ASU, and it’s not a pretty picture.
But wait, it gets worse. The next two games are against No. 6 Stanford and No. 12 Oregon. That either offers the Cats a chance for redemption… or pushes the season off the edge of the cliff.
Stoops, the younger brother of Bob Stoops at national powerhouse Oklahoma, was hired, in part, because of his family name and the fact that he has coached under his brother, where it is assumed he learned from the best. This was his first head-coach job.
He’s been winning just enough in Tucson to keep the fan base hopeful that even better times are to come. But beating one ranked team a year isn’t what he was hired to do.
Stoops has to be able to take that next big step to becoming competitive with the big boys, not just once in awhile, but consistently.
The losses to the ‘Pokes is bringing that ability into question again.