Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion fired the game-winning touchdown pass between two redshirt freshman defenders — a walk-on linebacker and an injury-replacement safety who was a receiver until fall camp.
Such is Arizona football these days.
Young and beat up, but battling, the patchwork Wildcats eventually succumbed to the passing of Mannion, who rang up a career-high 433 yards, the final nine coming on a perfectly timed pass to backup tight end Connor Hamlett with 1:09 left.
The Beavers won 38-35, their sixth consecutive victory at Arizona Stadium. They are 12-2 against Arizona since 1999.
The Wildcats had enough time left to mount a counter-strike to cap a wild second-half show, but Matt Scott and receiver Tyler Slavin weren’t in sync on a crossing pattern, and Scott’s throw over the middle was picked off by Rashaad Reynolds at the UA 44 with 38 seconds left.
Scott threw ahead of Slavin, who hesitated, perhaps breaking off the route because linebacker Michael Doctor had dropped into coverage and was occupying the middle of the field. Reynolds slipped inside Slavin and made the interception.
Even complete, the play wasn’t gaining more than few yards with precious time ticking away.
“There are five options on some of those routes,” said Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez.
“I don’t know what Matt saw. They made a nice play on it, but it’s never one play that beats you.”
The Wildcats will look back at a number of plays with regret.
–An early running-into-the kicker penalty that gave Oregon State a first down after missing a 32-yard field goal. The Beavers went on to score a touchdown for a 7-0 lead.
–A missed 41-yard field goal from John Bonano in the second quarter.
–A tipped pass that Arizona receiver Richard Morrison tried to corral, only to bat it back over his head, allowing cornerback Jordan Poyer to intercept it at midfield. Oregon State converted the turnover into a touchdown and a 24-21 lead late in the third quarter.
–Back-to-back 15-yard penalties on safety Jourdon Grandon — a late hit and a facemask — helped Oregon State drive for a touchdown and a 31-28 lead with 8:35 left.
–Mannion’s final touchdown pass, which came on third-and-5. Linebacker Sir Thomas Jackson jammed Hamlett at the line but couldn’t keep up when Hamlett released to the front left corner of the end zone after a play-action fake. Safety Patrick Onwuasor, playing for injured Jared Tevis, couldn’t close the passing window quickly enough.
“I wasn’t sure I was even open at first,” Hamlett said. “But Sean made a great throw and I adjusted.”
Tevis suffered an ankle injury in the first half, came back briefly, then sat out the entire second half. Whether he could have made a play on that ball, we’ll never know.
Rodriguez continues to say his young defense is “hanging in there.” But the Cats gave up 613 yards to Oregon State, the second time this season an opponent has gone over 600. Mannion was sacked twice but was rarely pressured on his 45 throws.
“A lot of guys wide open and a lot of passes thrown,” Rodriguez said of the Oregon State offense. “When we blitzed, we couldn’t get there and that makes it tough on our DBs.”
It’s just tough all around on defense right now.
UA starts one senior in its 3-3-5 scheme and gets help from just two or three other seniors, none in the back eight.
“There ain’t a whole lot of bodies,” Rodriguez said.
“Whoever is in there has to make the plays. We’ve covered this: We’re not a really deep team.
“I’m proud of the way they showed some heart and some fight, and some guys who went in there as backups played really hard and I’m proud of them. Are they as good as the starters? If they were, they would be the starters.”
Starting center Kyle Quinn went out in the second half with a leg injury. Three other starters didn’t dress out because of injury.
Scott, still protecting a hip injury suffered last week, twisted his ankle in the first half and had to leave for a play. His planned runs were curtailed, but gutted through a career-best passing performance — 403 yards, completing 31 of 52 passes.
Scott helped rally Arizona from a 17-0 second-quarter deficit. UA took a 21-17 lead with 8:48 to go in the third quarter, the first of six lead changes in the second half.
Arizona needed there to be a seventh.
After the defense couldn’t get a final stop, the offense failed to respond.
“We have an offense that is high tempo, and when it gets going and we get momentum behind us, we can put together some drives really quickly,” said receiver Dan Buckner. “We had a good spurt coming out for the second half, but then we didn’t finish.”
Funny how a couple of plays — those made or not made — can completely change how you feel about a season.
With a win, Arizona would be 4-1 with victories over two ranked teams and probably would have landed back in the Top 25 this week.
With the loss, Arizona is 3-2 and staring uneasily at a longer skid because of a difficult three-game stretch that starts with Saturday’s game at Stanford. After a bye, the Cats play host to Washington and USC. They would do well to be 4-4 at the end of that stretch.
“We have another test coming,” Buckner said.
“It hurts, but we fought. There are positives in the game as well as negatives. It’s never as bad as it seems and never as good.
“We have work to do. It’s a long season. It’s not even halfway done.”