Let’s start with error.
That was a popular word after the Arizona Wildcats’ 24-17 home loss to Washington State on Saturday.
UA coach Rich Rodriguez used it properly and multiply in a couple of different ways.
“It was a comedy of errors,” he said.
“Our margin of error of slim,” he added.
Too many of the first kind of errors — a dropped punt snap, two missed field goals, a lost fumble a play after intercepting a pass, a failed two-minute drive at the end of the game, missed tackles that will increase coaches’ blood pressure upon film review — led to a loss that forced the Wildcats out of lockstep in what had been a perfectly predictable season.
Win the games you should win.
Lose the games you should lose.
This was lose a game you should win.
RichRod will tell you that the losses are all tough — certainly he’s never met one he liked — but a poorly-played game in which you barely lose to a team you were favored to beat by nearly two touchdowns is a particularly cruel knife.
Arizona needed to check box No. 7 in the win column Saturday, ensuring a winning record and settling in to decent bowl position. Now, the Cats are 6-4 overall, 3-4 in the Pac-12, and bailing water as they prepare to face two ranked teams to end the season — Oregon at home, and at Arizona State.
At 6-6, with a potential nine teams eligible for seven Pac-12 bowl slots, a postseason game is not a guarantee, especially for an Arizona team that would be on a four-game losing streak in that scenario.
“This wasn’t a good one, that’s for sure. But I don’t know of any good loss,” Rodriguez said. “I don’t want any of the guys to accept any loss at all. This was is disappointing because even with as poorly as we played, we still had opportunities, so that makes it even harder to stomach.”
The game was tied at 17 entering the fourth quarter before the teams exchanged missed field goals — Washington State from 46 off the left upright, and Jake Smith from 35 wide left.
The Cougars took over and went 80 yards, converting a third-and-9 along the way, and scored with 2:15 left on a third-down pass from Connor Halliday to Isiah Myers. He caught the pass around the 7, spun out of a tackle from safety Will Parks and got into the end zone for a 25-yard play.
“It was just one of our regular plays,” Myers said. “We probably ran that play 30 times throughout the game.”
Arizona marched back, with B.J. Denker scrambling like a chicken to pick up nine yards on fourth-and-7 from the WSU 28, but the magic dust ran out right about there.
Incomplete. Four-yard pass to Trey Griffey, inbounds. Two-yard scramble along the sideline, but inbounds.
“There at the end, you probably want to throw it away and live for another play,” Rodriguez said.
With the clocking ticking and no timeouts left, Denker took the final snap from the WSU 13 with four seconds left. Looking and looking, he finally tried to hit Samajie Grant in the right corner of the end zone. No room. Grant made the catch out of bounds, finally putting this game out of its misery.
“We’re just calling a play to get it off, and he has to scramble around,” Rodriguez said.
“I don’t think we probably did a good job of moving after the initial play breaks down. We have to work on that more as coaches to get our young kids to know that once your initial thing is covered, you’re allowed to move and try to get open.”
That’s two weeks in a row, Arizona had a chance to win or tie with a late drive. The Cats are 0-2.
On Saturday, they scored 17 points against a team that had given up 162 in its past three games.
Arizona too often made Washington State’s defense look the second coming of the Palouse Posse; for sure, that wasn’t Desert Swarm on the Wildcats’ side.
It had the look of one of those days from the start, with a sparse crowd of 42,080 at Arizona Stadium and the Wildcats appearing similarly disinterested, falling behind 10-0 in the first quarter.
“We practiced well all well but we didn’t do what we needed to do,” said linebacker Jake Fischer. “That’s entirely on us.”
UA recovered to lead 14-10 with the ball late in the half, in position to swing a hammer to the Cougars, but Smith missed a 40-yard field goal on the final play before the break (after Terrence Miller had a touchdown pass go off his fingertips) … and then the Cats went three-and-out/turnover on the first series of the second half.
Punter Drew Riggleman handled a bad punt snap but then dropped the ball, which WSU recovered at the Arizona 31. A touchdown ensued.
Comedy of errors.
“You might all think its coachspeak when I say our margin of error is slim, but that’s just where we’re at,” Rodriguez said.
“I want our guys to be optimistic, but I also want our guys to be realists. We can’t poorly and win. We have to do our job as coaches and get them ready to play at a high level every week or we’re not going to win any games. I’ve said that from day one.
“Until we get to the point where we line up and play poorly and win, we’re going to struggle when we have days like today. We’re not at that point. If we do our job recruiting and developing, we’ll get there.”
But on Saturday, the Wildcats slipped underwater for the first time this season with more danger directly ahead.