Anthony Gimino: Just breathe after Wildcat football's first loss

Anthony Gimino: Just breathe after Wildcat football's first loss

By Anthony Gimino / Special for Tucson News Now

Sometimes you convert a 47-yard Hail Mary. Sometimes you miss a 36-yard field goal.

Nobody ever said college football was logical, fair or for the faint of heart. One week you're dreaming. The next you're screaming. You make the play you shouldn't. You don't make the play you should. Guess what? It usually all balances out.

We're going to take a nice, long deep breath as the Arizona Wildcats' wild ride of a season screeches into the midway station after a 28-26 loss to USC on Saturday night, OK? They're 5-1. They won at Oregon. They're 2-1 in the Pac-12.


The Wildcats are one kick away from being 6-0. They're one Hail Mary away from being 4-2. See? It balances out. They're 5-1, which seems right.

Arizona has played three Pac-12 games. One went down to the final play (the #HillMary to beat Cal). Another went down to the second-to-last-play (Casey Skowron's missed field goal Saturday night). And the other wasn't on ice until the final couple of minutes (Arizona getting a first down to run out the clock at Oregon after Scooby Wright's strip of Marcus Mariota).

Three games separated by 13 points. Isn't this fun?

"Losing on a last-second play, it's not easy," Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said.

That it came down to that can be blamed on all the things the Cats did wrong through three quarters. They scored only six points on four red zone trips in the first half, including a fumble at the USC 9. They couldn't tackle USC running back Javorius Allen, who powered and pinballed and pivoted his way to 205 yards. They failed to pressure Trojans quarterback Cody Kessler.

Skowron, who had made 11 of 13 field goal attempts heading into the game, missed three times Saturday night -- from 48 yards on the opening drive, from 34 yards (which was blocked on the final play of the first half), and then the 36-yarder, after which a USC defender made slight contact with his foot. On another night, with other refs, maybe that draws a running-into-the-kicker penalty. But on this night, Skowron on the turf, holding his foot up to the officials, only meant the game was over with 12 seconds left.

"When I talked to him, I told him he was still my boy and I loved him," said senior receiver Austin Hill. "Kickers tend to feel all the weight is on them when he should have never been in that situation in the first place. He needs to realize more of the weight is on the rest of the team."

Let's face it: The game was really lost in the trenches. In addition to USC's running game dominance, the Wildcats didn't have a run of longer than 9 yards.

"We didn't play well at times, but you've got to give them some credit," Rodriguez said. "That's a pretty talented team."

The Wildcats don't do everything right all the time. What did you expect? They aren't good enough to do things right all the time, but they're pretty good at compensating by going to the next-best thing: Play hard and never give up.

Arizona overcame an 18-point fourth-quarter deficit to beat Cal. The Cats trailed USC by 15 points in the fourth quarter on Saturday night. This time, fans at sold-out Arizona Stadium knew to stick around.

"We never got down on ourselves for a second," safety Jared Tevis said.

The magic was there and then -- poof -- it wasn't.

Arizona followed a 2-yard touchdown run by Jared Baker with 1:07 left with a questionable, and failed, handoff to Baker up the middle on the two-point conversion try. Arizona followed a recovery of a perfectly high-bouncing onside kick with the missed field goal, wide right.

The miss came after Skowron had apparently hit the game-winner, only to have it waved off because USC had called a timeout right before the snap. The Trojans successfully used that strategy, too, before blocking the field goal at the end of the first half.

A game of inches, fractions of a second and an operatic range of emotions.

So, Arizona's No. 10 ranking is gone, and the national media won't be throwing kisses to the Wildcats this week. The Pac-12 is so deep that not every team can get the results they want or deserve. Arizona can't complain.

There are six conference games left. Can you take it? How many more are going to come down to closing your eyes and crossing your fingers in the final minute, on the final play? Three? Four? All of them?

"We're only halfway through the season, and we have lot of big games ahead of us," Hill said. "We still have an opportunity to make a big splash and become the team we know we can be."

Catch your breath now while you can.

Anthony Gimino has covered University of Arizona athletics for more than two decades, including as the football beat writer for the Arizona Daily Star and the columnist for the Tucson Citizen.