"You have a great college town that supports the university, you have great academics, you have great weather, you're in an outstanding league that is going to continue to get even more and more exposure, you can recruit great players from your area ... so why not Arizona? Why not us? Why can't we win it all?"
-- Rich Rodriguez, in his introductory press conference in November, 2011.
By Anthony Gimino / Special for Tucson News Now
Why not Arizona? On Friday night, in the Pac-12 championship game, on the biggest football stage in school history, there were too many reasons to count.
The Wildcats' surprising, fascinating, full-of-fun season got blasted by a sucker punch, Arizona unable to get off the ropes and enduring a 51-13 pounding at the hands of the Oregon Ducks, who are moving on to the inaugural four-team College Football Playoff.
"They played well. We didn't," Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said. "Out-coached us. Out-played us. They did a nice job. We didn't execute well."
Their playoff dreams dashed, the Wildcats now wait until Sunday to find out their postseason destination. It could be the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, but looking bad in the Pac-12 title game could be costly. If Arizona isn't selected to one of the four "big bowls" after the national semifinal games, the Pac-12's next landing spot is the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio against a team from the Big 12.
The Arizona team that beat Cal on a Hail Mary, that pulled out a miracle against Washington, that outlasted Arizona State -- that won 31-24 at Oregon earlier this season -- ran out of magic Friday night.
The defense rallied to keep the team close, holding Oregon to a pair of early field goals and making a stop on downs, but it wasn't enough. The Ducks' defense overwhelmed Arizona at the line of scrimmage. The Wildcats went six consecutive possessions in the first half without as much as a single first down.
"It was us just not being on the same page," Wildcat freshman quarterback Anu Solomon said.
Arizona slowly lost its grip, and the Marcus Mariota-fueled Ducks pushed ahead 13-0 halfway through the second quarter and 23-0 at halftime. With quarterback Anu Solomon unable to continue after halftime because of a troublesome right ankle, the Wildcats gambled on fourth-and-1 at their 47 on their first drive of the second half … and got stuffed.
Nothing much mattered after that, the clock merely ticking down to Oregon's coronation.
"Tonight is disappointing the way we played," Rodriguez said.
Mariota showed why he is the Heisman favorite, accounting for five touchdowns, and making sharp reads on when to throw and when to burn the Wildcats with his legs. While he and the Ducks seemed intent on making a statement -- perhaps earning a No. 1 seed in the College Football Playoff -- Arizona swung and missed in the rain at Levi's Stadium.
Why not Arizona?
Because it lost a fumble the first time it touched the ball -- on a kick return by Tyrell Johnson. Because it had 10 first downs after having 29 in each of the past two games against Oregon, both victories. Because it didn't tackle well. Because it went 3 for 15 on third down after going 20 of 33 in the past two games vs. the Ducks. Because the offensive line only cleared enough space for Nick Wilson to gain 26 yards on 13 carries. Because it lost the turnover battle, 2-0.
Because it was sacked four times and didn't get to Mariota once. Because on a play when backup quarterback Jesse Scroggins was intercepted, starting center Steven Gurrola got frustrated and got ejected for fighting.
The Wildcats didn't have to be perfect to beat Oregon, but it had to at least be equal in all the key areas.
This Arizona team got further than any other in school history -- it won the Pac-12 South and played a game with the conference title on the line. And it did so in Rodriguez's third season, in a year in which the 4-year-old South division had never been stronger.
The sting of this stinker will linger. There's no getting around that. The glory of a good season can turn into a curse when built-up high hopes are unmercifully squashed. Second place can feel like last place.
At least for a while.
"To win the Pac-12 South is a great accomplishment by our guys, by our senior class especially," Rodriguez said. "It could be the toughest division in college football. I'm proud that we got that. We should be in a very good bowl."