Coach Mike Stoops struggled to come up with the last time his Arizona Wildcats played so poorly, was so utterly outmanned, was so flat-out embarrassed and embarrassing.
If there is one thing you have been able to count on recently from Arizona, it is the team’s ability to compete.
But starting with a poor kick return, two incomplete passes and an interception, UA was grabbed by the neck by Nebraska and bum-rushed out of Qualcomm Stadium, bowing meekly 33-0 in the Holiday Bowl on Wednesday night.
“Nothing was right all night,” Stoops said.
“I’m disappointed just in the way we played and took this stage tonight. It has been a long time since we played a game like this. I don’t know if we were just content getting here, but we certainly didn’t show up in any way, and for that I apologize to our fans. I have to do a better job of preparing our team.”
The last time Arizona was so dominated was Sept. 9, 2006, in a 45-3 loss at LSU. Back then, the Tigers were clearly superior, they were at home, quarterback Willie Tuitama suffered a concussion … and the result was expected. The Holiday Bowl was supposed to be a toss-up on neutral turf, a defensive struggle featuring just a few big offensive plays here and there.
Instead, Nebraska made all the plays, Arizona none.
“It was our attitude and our effort,” said defensive coordinator Mark Stoops, coaching his last game at Arizona before taking over coordinator duties at Florida State. “All the principles that we stand for, all the principles that we built this program on, were not there tonight.”
Said Mike Stoops: “We didn’t have an edge about us tonight in any phase.”
Why? Neither Stoops brother said he really saw this coming. The preparation, Mark said, was similar to last season’s game against BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Did the coaches not notice the players getting big heads from a closing two-game winning streak over ASU and USC that netted the Wildcats an 8-4 regular-season record and a tie for second in the Pac-10? Effort was part of the equation Wednesday night, but there is no getting around the fact that Nebraska’s defense, led by All-American defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, was just waaaay too good.
The Cornhuskers pressed Arizona’s receivers like no team has, taking away the screen game and daring UA to go deep. “They just man up and say, ‘Beat us,’” said quarterback Nick Foles.
Arizona couldn’t. Couldn’t even come close. The Wildcats had 37 yards before gaining 72 on a final push that ended at the 8-yard line.
So, Arizona was out-coached, out-schemed, out-prepared, out-efforted.
The Wildcats had gone 31 consecutive games without a loss of more than 10 points, by far the longest such streak in the Pac-10. It’s a bit of a manufactured stat, but it shows that UA, whether it was against USC or second-ranked Oregon or ranked BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl, pretty much stood toe-to-toe with everyone, winning 19 of their past 29 games and not getting blown out in two-and-a-half seasons.
What happened Wednesday night was the exception, not the rule.
“This game is humbling in a lot of different ways,” Stoops said. “When you think you have arrived, that’s when you are going to get whacked. And we certainly got whacked by a much better team. …
“Believe me, I am proud of what we accomplished this season, but you can’t ever forget how you got here. Sometimes that can happen. We’ve earned a lot of respect over the past two years but you have to continually work on that.”
Stoops should be proud of what Arizona accomplished this season. The Wildcats were one game better in the regular season than last year, although the final record – 8-5 – is the same. Those are the two best back-to-back seasons at Arizona since 1997 and 1998.
Remember, the Wildcats were picked to finish eighth by the Pac-10 media (and were generally projected anywhere from fifth to eighth).
The crushing defeat in the Holiday Bowl stings, but it doesn’t change the fact that Arizona exceeded expectations, provided several thrills, delivered ESPN’s College Football GameDay to campus for the first time and kept the program on an upward pitch.
Mark Stoops, standing in a hallway outside the locker room and addressing a few reporters, told the story of how senior defensive tackle Earl Mitchell stood up in a meeting before the Oregon game and told his teammates that no matter what happened the rest of the way, he was going to be proud because “this group changed the complexion of Arizona football.”
“Basically,” Mitchell said last night after being one of the final players to leave the locker room, “I told them I had seen our team rise from pretty much nothing, from our trials at LSU to our triumph at USC.”
But at the very end, the team that had proven it could compete with anybody on its schedule, didn’t.
Mitchell sees a silver lining for what is left behind.
“I think it’s a good thing,” he said. “A lot of our younger guys, they came in and saw a lot of the good things, and they didn’t really understand how it feels to be down.
“Hopefully, they can be to able to play with some pride because they know how it feels to be down.”
Can’t argue with that.
The offseason awaits. Time to get back to working with a purpose.