Cali schools humble ASU, UA in Pac-12 football openers


If you’re a Pac-12 football fan in Arizona, our sympathies.  Last night was a bad dream…followed by a nightmare.

After the University of Arizona Wildcats gave up 42 points to UCLA in the first half of the early-evening game and were never able to recover, Arizona State was stunned in the follow-up game when USC scored two touchdowns in the final 45 seconds of an already out-of-control first half to take a 35-0 lead into the locker room.  The Sun Devils, too, never recovered.

Arizona eventually succumbed to the Bruins, 56-30, and the Sun Devils recovered just enough to put some points on the board in the 42-14 beat-down.

And to make matters worse, both were home games for the Arizona teams.

But if one team deserved more pity than the other, it would have to be the Wildcats.  Their display of ineptness came after a day of high-octane hype leading up to game time.  ESPN’s College Game Day was telecast to millions from the Tucson campus in the morning, giving potential recruits a tour of the campus.  And the coaching staff and athletic department worked ’round the clock that week, making sure all their recruiting targets would be tuned in to Game Day and the big game between two ranked and unbeaten teams.

In hindsight, probably not a good idea.

The promised performance the No. 16-ranked Cats dished up for all those potential recruits lasted just one drive of 75 yards that led to the first score of the game.  After that, No. 9 UCLA shut down their offense and ran all over sloppy defensive play to take a 42-14 at the half.  The Bruins made it look easy.

It’s impossible to tell how many potential recruits tuned out after the first half, but that thought no doubt entered the minds of the UofA coaches.

The goal of getting a ton of national exposure for your program can be a boon to recruiting.  But it’s a two-edged sword.  If you finish the game with egg on your face, it can actually set back earlier gains in recruiting.

Arizona is now faced with the latter.

It didn’t help at all when, as the second half began, the TV cameras panned the Arizona student-body section to show a bunch of empty seats to illustrate the point made by the announcers that the students were giving up early on their football team.  Ouch.

So it was probably a good thing that one of those announcers, Kirk Herbstreit, wasn’t over in Tempe working the ASU game because he was one of a few college football analysts that had predicted the Sun Devils would be among the four teams at the end of the season playing in the new College Football Playoffs.  That would have been awkward.

After the Cats scored on their first drive, looking like a team that was ready to defend its South Division crown, UCLA responded in kind and the 56,004 fans at Arizona Stadium were treated to an early explosion of two scores in less than five minutes.

But then it turned ugly for the Wildcats.

It took UCLA just 39 seconds to score again.  The Bruins recovered a high snap that went over quarterback Anu Solomon‘s head at the Arizona 16-yard line and then converted it into a touchdown when Paul Perkins scampered around the right end to even the score.

By halftime, it was 42-14 and the rout was on.

The Arizona defense stiffened in the second half and became more aggressive, keeping the Bruins pinned down inside their own 20 for the first couple of possessions.  And the offense got rolling when  wide receiver David Richards pulled in a 16-yard TD pass from redshirt senior QB Jerrard Randall, who started the second half after Solomon took a hard hit above the shoulders late in the second quarter and was taken to the locker room for observation. He did not return and a back-up quarterback was left with the task of pulling the rabbit out of the hat.

But a field goal midway through the third quarter and a score in the final two minutes against the UCLA reserves would be all the Cats could muster.  Arizona actually finished with almost as many total yards of offense as the Bruins, 468 to 497, and ran 87 plays – a dozen more than their opponent.  But scores were hard to come by.

ASU had similar struggles.  The Sun Devils spent most of the first half playing on USC’s part of the field, but a couple of turnovers and two missed field goals enabled the visiting Trojans to keep them out of the end zone.

Perhaps the part that really killed the Devils’ momentum – and their psyche – came just before intermission. With 45 seconds left in the first half, ASU was on the USC one-yard line, with four downs to push it over the goal line. But Trojan safety Chris Hawkins recovered a fumble and carried it back 94 yards for a score to put ASU in a deep 28-0 hole.

And then the Devils dug the hole deeper.  On the following kickoff, ASU junior running back De’Chavon Hayes received the kick in his end zone and hesitated before deciding to run it back.  He fumbled at the five-yard line and the Trojans capitalized, scoring with three seconds left on the clock.

USC quarterback Cody Kessler threw for 295 yards and five touchdowns in the first half, and the Sun Devils were never able to get the momentum back.

Arizona State falls to 2-2 and the Wildcats suffer their first loss in a 3-1 start.