Do you love this Arizona football team or hate it?
“We were one play short,” coach Mike Stoops said late Friday night, quietly, in a interview room beneath the stands at Arizona Stadium. “It seems to be our story for the season.”
Sadly, he’s right.
Nobody makes a movie out of being close. Nobody produces special edition magazines — Rose Bowl at last! — when you fail to make a play at the end.
The ESPN coverage will fade away. GameDay, it was nice knowing you. Thanks for coming.
It has been the season of “What if,” a season of an interception off a shoe, an illegal double-pass and a 44-41 overtime loss to 11th-ranked Oregon when one play — one play somewhere in the fourth quarter on offense or defense or special teams — could have preserved a 24-14 lead with 13:57 left.
For about 29 minutes of game time, the UA defense stymied Oregon — the trickiest, sassiest, most doggone confounding offense in the Pac-10 — and kept the Ducks off the scoreboard. Arizona turned a 14-0 deficit into a 24-14 lead early in the fourth quarter.
But then it all slipped away.
Do you love the Wildcats for battling to the end and nearly upsetting the 11th-ranked team in the country?
Or do you hate them for blowing it?
For dangling Rose Bowl dreams right where you could touch them.
For being so dang close Saturday night that fans — idiotic, misguided fans — poured out of the stands and crowded the sidelines within the final minute of regulation, only to see the Ducks tie the game with a touchdown with six seconds left.
“Our guys couldn’t have fought any harder,” said defensive coordinator Mark Stoops.
“We were a play away from beating a very good football team. As bad as I feel, and as bad as our defense feels, you have to look at the character of our players and how far we’ve come. You have to take salvation in the big picture, because otherwise it will kill us right now.”
The big picture is that this was a team picked to finish eighth by the Pac-10 media, with other predictions being anywhere from fifth to eighth. Arizona, without its best player (tight end Rob Gronkowski) all season and without its top two running backs (Nic Grigsby and Keola Antolin) for the majority of the Pac-10 season, can still finish as high as a tie for second, with a possible berth to the Holiday Bowl.
But are you ready for this? If Arizona loses at Arizona State and USC, the Cats are stuck at 6-6 and could end up nowhere. The Pac-10 already has five qualified teams for its six bowl slots … and then UCLA and Arizona each are sitting on six victories.
How we all end up feeling about this team is still to be decided.
Arizona can’t let the loss to Oregon define the season, even though the game might do just it.
“I can say we’re not going to let it, but at the end of the day, we all know it is,” said senior free safety Cam Nelson. “It is something that is going to affect us for the rest of our lives, knowing we let this opportunity slip out of our hands. I could sit here and say, ‘No, we’re not going to worry about it and put it behind us,’ but I’m not (going to say that).”
As I’ve said before, Arizona is an average to above average team. That it flirted with school history is to its credit. The Pac-10 is filled with teams just like UA. Make a play, and win. Don’t make a play, and lose. Can’t win ‘em all.
Arizona has played five coin-flip games — Oregon State, Washington, Stanford, Cal and Oregon — and won twice.
Maybe the next time, the opponent’s 43-yard field goal will hit the crossbar and bounce backward and not forward. Maybe the next time, Arizona will fumble into the end zone and recover it. Maybe next time, an opponent’s pass into the end zone will be an inch the other way and get knocked down.
Credit to Oregon. Quarterback Jeremiah Masoli was superb when he absolutely had to be, running and passing, and leading the Ducks back to victory.
And the Cats are left with a bag full of “What ifs.”
Do you hate them for the pain of the close losses? For reminding us of other so-close seasons such as 1998 and 1993?
Or do you love them for coming so close in the first place?
When it was all over Saturday night and Oregon was celebrating, senior defensive tackle Earl Mitchell took a knee, alone, in the end zone. He rose, hands on hips, likely exhausted, taking it all in. As he took the slow walk to the locker room, the student section began chanting, “Ar-i-zon-a, Ar-i-zon-a.”
But the scoreboard read, Oregon 44, Arizona 41.
“You move forward and turn the page, as painful as it is,” Mike Stoops said.
The pain will only be magnified if Arizona doesn’t beat ASU.