Anyone who watched Arizona’s Week 5 matchup against USC saw two completely different games. The ‘Cats got crushed 17-0 in the first half, but then flipped a switch and ended the game on a 20-0 run. UA had opportunities to win the game, too. It’s almost as if the failed comeback made the loss sting just a little more.
The Wildcats couldn’t do anything positive on either side of the ball the first 30 minutes. UA held the football for just 10 minutes, allowing more passing yards to USC (125) than their yards of total offense (116). Khalil Tate went 9-18 for just 77 yards with an interception. USC had not one but two running backs who came a mere 20 yards short of Arizona’s entire rushing total in the first half alone. It was atrocious.
But those stats don’t tell the whole story. UA still managed nine first downs in the half, and put themselves in position to hit a field goal at the end, but Lucas Havrisik missed it. On the other hand, the score could’ve been much, much worse. USC committed nine penalties for 95 yards, and some of the biggest ones came either on offense or special teams when the offense was about to take over.
Take the Trojans’ drive after picking Tate off in the second quarter for example. USC took over on Arizona’s 32-yard line and were immediately flagged for holding on the first play. USC kicked a field goal after failing to pick up a first down, so those ten yards may have cost SC four points, letting Arizona hang around. Two touchdowns and a field goal is a steep task, but more improbable comebacks have happened. Just consider the Hill Mary game against Cal in 2014. UA went down 21-3 before turning it on in the second half and winning the game (damn, look at me reminiscing about a RichRod game. Sure, this might be an exception, but damn).
The second half proved to be a totally different game. Arizona actually won the half 20-7 and went on a 20-0 run to end the game. The biggest difference in the last 30 minutes was the Wildcats defense, especially on third down. USC only managed six first downs the whole second half — three in each quarter — after twelve in the first half. The Arizona defense also forced two huge turnovers in the fourth quarter as they stepped up big time with the game in the balance.
Though this begs the question: where was this defense in the first half? Was UA defensive coordinator Marcel Yates outcoached in the first half, or did he wait until halftime to make adjustments? It doesn’t look as though the personnel on the field was the problem, because they got the job done in the second half.
The postgame press conference was also encouraging, because sophomore linebacker Colin Schooler took responsibility for the loss despite playing excellently. He had eight tackles, five assisted tackles and a recovered fumble. The loss wasn’t Schooler’s fault. And while his postgame speech wasn’t Tebow vs. Mississippi, it showed the leadership that any team, especially a team this young, needs.
The offense played much better in the second half as well. Khalil Tate started finding receivers downfield and seemed to take more shots on passing plays. Tate was 4-6 for 89 yards in the third quarter and 3-9 for 66 in the fourth. Tate also got out of the pocket more in the second half to extend plays, which was promising, if not frightening. Tate is at his best when he’s moving outside the pocket, but don’t forget that he is also hurt. There were even calls for his benching on Saturday because he wasn’t at times physically capable of playing quarterback. He has another week for his ankle to hopefully get better before Cal comes to Arizona Stadium.
The loss to USC is frustrating on several levels. First off, it’s never fun to lose Southern Cal. Screw SC. But more importantly, it’s frustrating because the ‘Cats put themselves in position to complete a comeback. Arizona played winning football the entirety of the second half, but because of how poorly they played in the first half and Tate not being 100 percent, they lost. It’s almost like they beat themselves.
This isn’t Arizona’s first close loss, either. Back in Week 1, UA lost to BYU by five after scoring 13-straight points. And BYU isn’t bad either, as they beat a top-five Wisconsin team in Madison. They were ranked No. 21 in the country last week before losing to Washington, and will probably be back in the Top-25 before season’s end.
UA is 2-3 with close losses to BYU — who very well might finish the season ranked — and USC — who could win the Pac-12 South. Some might say there is some hope left. The only issue is that Kevin Sumlin set lofty expectations in the offseason by parading himself around talking about a Rose Bowl appearance.
Arizona is in the first year of a new head coaching regime with a quarterback starting for his first full year. A walk-on wide receiver, Stanley Berryhill, is one of the biggest offensive threats and the defense is one of the youngest in the conference. 2-3 with two close losses should be promising for a team with those story lines, rather than the disappointment in which both the media (myself included) and the athletic department have framed this team.
Who knows. Maybe this year will be a good learning experience for Tate, Sumlin and the rest of this young Arizona football team. They will just need some perspective in order to appreciate it.
Gambling this season? Want to try it just to see what it feels like? Go to MyBookie.ag and use promo code ARMCHAIR25 at checkout. They will match your deposit dollar for dollar. Putting in $100? You’ll now have $200.