No longer unbeaten: UA football runs out of late escapes

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                </div>  The borrowed time that University of Arizona football has been operating on so far this season finally ran out. Once again, it ground down to the final seconds of […]<!-- AddThis Sharing Buttons below -->
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The borrowed time that University of Arizona football has been operating on so far this season finally ran out.

Once again, it ground down to the final seconds of a game.  But this time there was no escaping that dreaded first loss of the season as a 36-yard field-goal attempt went wide in the final 17 seconds of Saturday’s game against USC..

The 28-26 loss to the 4-2 Trojans knocked the 5-1 Wildcats from the ranks of the unbeaten after a 5-0 start that is the best the program has managed since 1998 — in front of a sold-out crowd at Arizona Stadium and a national television audience.

USC moved to the top of the Pac-12 South Division at 3-1 and Arizona dropped to a tie with Arizona State in second place, both with 2-1 records.

“Instead of scoring field goals, you need to score touchdowns – and you can’t fumble the ball inside the 10-yard line,”said a frustrated Rich Rodriguez after the game.  “You want to finish more drives so you don’t put yourself in that position.”

The fumble the third-year head coach was referring to was the only turnover for the Cats in the game, a bobble by Terris Jones-Grigsby at the seven-yard line, but it came late in the first half when Arizona needed a momentum shift going into the locker room.  Instead, USC led 14-6 at the half, with Arizona’s only scoring coming off a couple of Casey Skowron field goals, and held the lead the rest of the way.

But, while the fumble was gut-wrenching, it was the field-goal inefficiency that had Rodriguez tied in knots. Skowron made both of his attempts in the first half, but then went 0-for-3 the rest of the way.  Of course, the one that will be best remembered was the last one that slid wide right of the uprights to end his team’s come-from-behind bid and sealed the Trojans’ win.

The Wildcats have pulled games out of the fire all season long, enabling them to win some that looked lost.

In the second game on the schedule, it took an interception by Jared Tevis with 1:20 left in the game to preserve a three-point win against UT-San Antonio.  In the next game, Nevada was surging in the fourth quarter, but Arizona was able to run the clock out with their final possession to pull out a seven-point win.

But the biggest Houdini-style escape came in the following game when the Cats opened the Pac-12 schedule against California.  Arizona came back from a 28-6 halftime deficit to pull out a 49-45 victory when Austin Hill grabbed a 47-yard ‘Hail Mary’ pass in the end zone as time expired.

It looked like the Wildcats were done living on the edge of the sword when they stunned No. 2 Oregon on the road.  The 31-24 win was no fluke, with the Cats scoring three touchdowns in the third quarter to build a lead that would hold the final 15 minutes, and the polls reflected their performance by catapulting them from being an unranked team to a new role as No.10 in the country.

The last time an unranked team made that kind of rise in the polls was 25 years ago.

But this week, Arizona went right back to its old ways, letting USC mount a lead and then tried to pull the game from the fire in the final minutes.  The Cardiac Cats even added some of their usual thrill to the closing minutes when Cayleb Jones recovered an onside kick to set up the game-ending field-goal attempt.

This time, however, the karma belonged to USC as the Trojans escaped with a win that could have easily gone to the Wildcats.

Arizona’s redshirt freshman QB Anu Solomon finished the night with 395 yards passing and one touchdown, spreading his 43 completions around to 10 different receivers.  Jared Baker, who came in to replace Jones-Grigsby who was injured late in the first half, had 93 total yards and scored a pair of touchdowns rushing and one through the air.  His third TD of the night was the big one, coming with just 1:07 left to play to pull the Cats within two points ans set the stage for the successful on-side kick recovery.

The defense was led by Scooby Wright III, who had 12 tackles and his sixth sack of the season, and Tra’Mayne Bondurant, who collected 11 tackles.

Overall, the stats show a pretty evenly-matched game.  USC picked up 472 yards of total offense to Arizona’s 424, although the Trojans relied heavily on the run and the Wildcats picked up most of their yardage passing.  Both teams were successful exactly half the time with third-down conversions, with Arizona successful on 11 out of 22 tries and USC going 8-for-16.  And time of possession just slightly favored USC, which had the ball for 31:10, compared to 28:50 for Arizona.

So it’s not likely that Arizona will drop much in the rankings, particularly since they were actually a 2 1/2-point underdog going into the game.

And that could be a step closer to a rare possibility when the Territorial Cup game arrives at the end of the season against rival Arizona State.  ASU was ranked No. 16 before being dropped from the rankings after a devastating 62-27 loss to UCLA a couple of weeks ago, but has time to climb back into the polls.

Should both schools enter this year’s contest as ranked teams, it will be the first time in almost 30 years.

And that will most assuredly mean another sell-out at Arizona Stadium.

(Photo: USC Athletics)