TUCSON, Ariz. — Arizona did just about everything it could. Everything but win.
The offense had 476 yards. It needed a foot more.
The defense needed one more stand. It couldn’t find it.
The Wildcats needed one last-ditch, 88-yard drive. Instead, they got three yards in the final two minutes.
Close, but not close enough.
Arizona once again showed it could stay close with a bona fide quality team in No. 19 UCLA, but as was the case in the two previous losses this season, it wasn’t good enough, as the Wildcats lost 31-26 in a crucial Pac-12 South game in front of 51,531 fans at Arizona Stadium.
They did have their chances late, but against a toughened Bruins defense in the final minutes, Arizona just couldn’t make the plays it needed to
As Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez lamented about his Wildcats, they “played poorly and had a chance at the end.”
“We just didn’t get the first first down,” quarterback B.J. Denker said of the final drive on which Arizona managed just three yards and no first downs. “That’s how we get into our rhythm. We couldn’t get into the rhythm, and I threw three bad passes and we lost the football game.”
But through it all — a devastating goal-line fumble by Ka’Deem Carey, an apparent UCLA fumble that was reversed upon review that would have given Arizona the ball near midfield in the fourth quarter, and numerous big plays from the Bruins — the Wildcats still had a chance.
“We didn’t execute in the red zone,” said Denker. “We didn’t put points on the board. We either got field goals or turned the ball over. And we still had the chance.
“UCLA had some fumbles. They were asking us to take the game over, and we couldn’t. We get one opportunity — two-minute drill, fourth quarter and no timeouts. It’s everything a quarterback can ask for. It was too much for me to handle.”
Arizona fell to 6-3 overall and 3-3 in the Pac-12. UCLA is now 7-2 overall and 4-2 in the conference, a game back of South leader Arizona State.
“Arizona played tough, solid defense,” said UCLA coach Jim Mora. “We were happy to get out of here with a win.”
The loss didn’t sit well with Rodriguez, whose team had opportunities but simply didn’t execute when it mattered most and gave up some costly big plays.
UCLA scored on its first play from scrimmage, a 68-yard touchdown pass from Brett Hundley to Shaquelle Evans. Later, Arizona couldn’t stop linebacker-turned-running back Myles Jack, who had 120 yards on six carries, including a 66-yard touchdown that turned out to be the game-deciding score. The Wildcats also couldn’t stop Hundley from escaping numerous apparent sacks to keep drives alive.
“They all were big,” said an upset Rodriguez. “It’s ridiculous. You can’t tackle a quarterback and you give up a 66-yard run. … You have to get off blocks better, you have to tackle better and block better.”
Rodriguez said he and the Wildcats will be sick watching tape.
“We’re not going to be very happy,” he said. “We had all those opportunities and you lose by a touchdown. How many plays are you going to watch and say, ‘That one play would make a difference for us?’ That’s going to be the hard part.”
Watching Jack run wild had to be particularly painful. The freshman hadn’t taken a handoff all season, although Mora said “we have always talked about” it. Then, all of a sudden, he couldn’t be stopped.
Arizona, not surprisingly, didn’t prepare for him.
“What are you going to do?” Rodriguez said. “So 30 (Jack) is coming into the game and you change the defense? The guy is a great athlete, a first-round pick as a linebacker. We tried to recruit him as a running back, as did most teams in the country.”
His counterpart for Arizona, Ka’Deem Carey, did his part, rushing for 157 yards and a touchdown on 28 carries. But the one he and the Wildcats will remember was the one on which he was helicoptered just short of the goal line and lost the ball, fumbling it into the end zone, where UCLA recovered for a touchback. With the Bruins leading 24-10, a score would’ve gotten the Wildcats back within a touchdown.
And who else but Jack recovered it.
“I’m very excited and patient when I run that football. I’m just trying to get in the end zone,” Carey said of the play. “I closed my eyes and took a leap. Anything for the team. They knocked it out. It was a good play by the defense.”
Arizona continued to chip away at the deficit, driving 88 yards on an
eight-play drive, with Denker hitting freshman receiver Nate Phillips for a
15-yard score to make it 24-19 with 11:46 left.
Myles’ 66-yard run made it 31-19, the Wildcats again drove the field, with Denker again finding Phillips on a 14-yard touchdown pass with 8:02 left.
“Nate did OK; he caught a couple of nice balls,” Rodriguez said when asked if Phillips was a bright spot.
Bright spots aside, Carey summed up the Wildcats’ desire to move on from a disappointing loss.
“I’m just looking for the next game,” the junior said.
That next one will come next week against Washington State. But on Saturday night, in the biggest game in the last four years in Tucson, the Cats came up just short.