One more stop. That’s all the Arizona Wildcats needed to have a chance. One more stop with USC at its 4-yard line with 4:15 left.
The stop never game.
USC senior running back Silas Redd ran the ball on seven consecutive plays, gaining 43 yards — 10 of which came on third-and-8 with under two minutes left and Arizona out of timeouts.
And that was that. USC held on to win 38-31 in its first game under interim head coach Ed Orgeron while the Wildcats dropped to 3-2 overall and 0-2 in the Pac-12.
“We knew they were going to run it and we didn’t stop the run,” coach Rich Rodriguez said in his postgame interview on 1290-AM KCUB. “They get three first downs when we know they’re going to run. They just overpowered us, it looked like.”
But on a night when the Wildcats’ play went from frustrating (down 14-0 in the first quarter after allowing two long passes) to embarrassing (special teams’ gaffes) to encouraging (how ’bout that fourth-quarter rally) to the disappointing final defensive series, the wild wheel of emotions should come to rest pointing at this word: Hopeful.
“We’re going to keep fighting, no matter what,” running back Ka’Deem Carey said on 1290-AM.
“I feel like we can have a great season. This is only two losses. We found a rhythm. We found who we are. It was a good game for us, even though we lost.”
What the Cats found is that their passing game doesn’t have to be a season-long lost cause.
You did not bet on this: Senior quarterback B.J. Denker completed 28 of 44 passes for 363 yards, with four touchdowns and no interceptions.
He entered the game having completed one pass of more than 20 yards to a wide receiver. He exited with touchdown passes of 57 yards to Nate Phillips, 45 yards to Garic Wharton and a 28-yarder to Wharton with 4:18 to go.
“It opens up everything for the offense,” Carey said of the passing game.
“Just being able to throw it down field, get the tempo running. Once we get first downs, we make the defense run. Later on, when we started to get going, we saw the defense, hands on their knees. They were exhausted. It was great to see that.”
So, Denker can pass. He still seemed a bit jittery early, but he was over 200 yards at halftime, including the scoring pass to Phillips with 56 seconds left. Before that arcing throw, USC led 28-3 and was standing over the Cats as the referee was counting them out.
Denker fired downfield with more zip in the second half. His best play came when he scrambled far out of the pocket and still had the poise to find David Richards in the back of the end zone. Sometimes, it’s nice to have a 6-foot-4 receiver down field.
“I thought he made some nice throws, and the guys made some phenomenal catches,” Rodriguez said.
“And there were some other throws we left out there, particularly in the first half. We had a couple of touchdown plays we didn’t connect on. B.J. is capable of doing it, and the wideouts had a pretty nice day.”
Rodriguez will find no shortage of correctable moments, starting with tempo. It was good late, poor early.
“It was 100 percent tempo,” Denker said of the offense’s improvement in the fourth quarter, when the Wildcats went 96 yards for a touchdown and also hit on a two-play, 42-yard scoring drive.
“If we had the tempo and pace in the first and second quarters that we had late in the third and the fourth, it would have been a different game. I got comfortable and I got in a rhythm. I felt like they were gassed, especially their front four.”
So, Arizona has lost its first two conference games. That was to be expected. Lose at Washington. Lose at USC.
Record-wise, the Wildcats are where they’re supposed to be. Progress-wise, they raised the ceiling on the passing game, the team’s biggest question.
From that comes the hope that Arizona is capable of succeeding during prove-it time.
Arizona is entering its “winnable” conference stretch. Four of the next five games are against Utah, at Colorado, at Cal and vs. Washington State. Now is the time to sync the defense from earlier in the season with the passing game against USC.
At least now, even after a loss, UA knows a passing game exists.
RELATED: Arizona-USC game blog
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My mindset is we didn't lose, we just ran outta time. We never gave up. Proud of my brothers. This is the turning point. #BearDown
— BJ Denker (@VanillaV1ck7) October 11, 2013
I def hate losing, but I'd be lying if I said im not proud of the progress weve made as an offense. We on noww!!!! #BearDown
— Garic Wharton (@GEEbby16) October 11, 2013
The worst feeling is losing when u know you didn't play to your capability. We've got to be consistently great. We'll get there though #btfd
— Jared Tevis (@TucTownTevis) October 11, 2013