Which, of course, meant the Wildcats had to rally late. And while they did, it wasn’t quite enough, as Arizona turned a rout into doubt in the final minutes of the fourth quarter but still suffered a 38-31 loss to USC in Ed Orgeron’s debut as the Trojans’ interim coach.
For USC, there is life after Lane Kiffin. For Arizona, there’s a losing streak; the Wildcats have dropped two straight following three straight victories over lesser opponents to open the season.
After Arizona got back within a touchdown late, it came down to a third-and-8 situation with just under two minutes left, with USC needing a first down and Arizona needing to force a punt to get the ball back and have a chance to complete the comeback. Needing eight yards, USC running back Silas Redd got 10. And that was it.
“They just overpowered us,” Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said on his postgame radio show.
Arizona, down and out for nearly three quarters, played admirably in the final quarter-plus, scoring two late touchdowns in a span of less than three minutes behind senior quarterback B.J. Denker, who had a career night through the air.
“We finally settled in and (saw) how they are going to play us,” Rodriguez said. “We executed and got some big plays. We got them tired and got some momentum going. It felt good, (and) there was plenty of time.”
Denker’s last touchdown pass — a perfectly thrown wheel route to Garic Wharton with 4:18 left — gave the Wildcats hope, but Arizona’s defense just wasn’t good enough to on this night, as USC consistently moved the ball on the ground after hitting a couple big pass plays early to take control.
The Trojans (4-2 overall, 1-2 Pac-12) finished with 546 yards — 297 through the air and 249 on the ground.
Rodriguez said that “in hindsight” he perhaps should have attempted an onside kick with four minutes left rather than giving USC a chance to run out the clock, but he chose to give his defense a chance to get a stop.
“(Hopefully) we’d have a three-and-out,” Rodriguez said. “(Maybe) we’d get the ball (in good field position) with plenty of time to score. But it didn’t happen.”
USC got three first downs on the possession, all on Redd runs, while Arizona used its last two timeouts before simply running out of time.
“What was more disappointing was that we knew they were going to run it
and we didn’t stop the run,” Rodriguez said. “We didn’t get that stop.”
He added, “It was the worst we’ve tackled all year. We missed more tackles in this game than in the other games combined.”
Arizona’s comeback started when David Richards made a leaping touchdown catch at the back of the end zone with 6:18 left. It was his first of the season. Just over two minutes later, Wharton got open up the sideline for his second TD, and all of a sudden what had been a USC-dominated game was in doubt.
The Wildcats’ surprisingly potent passing game — which had been missing all season — overshadowed another strong performance by junior running back Ka’Deem Carey, who finished with 138 yards, making it 12 times in the past 13 games he’s had more than 100 yards.
Still, the story on offense was Denker, who had a career night while going 28 of 44 for 363 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that in defeat, Arizona might finally have found a balance between Carey’s legs and Denker’s arm.
“B.J. made some nice throws, and there were some phenomenal catches the guys did,” Rodriguez said. “There were some other ones we left out there. … There were a couple of touchdown plays we didn’t connect on, but B.J. is capable of doing it, and the wideouts did a nice job.”
Rodriguez said he hopes Denker’s performance “gives him some confidence in some respects. He’s conscientious enough to work on the one’s he missed.”
Speaking of what was missed, Arizona will lament what it couldn’t do early or late in this game: stop the USC offense.
There are times when a slumbering giant is awoken, and the next team up is the one that suffers. With Kiffin out and Orgeron in, it appeared Arizona would be that team on this night, with USC playing with emotion and precision in jumping out to a 14-0 lead.
Troans quarterback Cody Kessler threw a 62-yard touchdown to Nelson Agholor to open the scoring — it was USC’s longest play in 10 quarters at the time — then followed it up with a 63-yard touchdown pass to Tre Madden a possession later.
This from a team that had only one play of 60 or more yards all season under Kiffin, who was unceremoniously let go less than two weeks ago and replaced by the popular, fast-talking Orgeron.
“These men have been fantastic,” Orgeron told the Associated Press. “We really have a close bond here.”
Said Rodriguez: “They just executed. We just blew some coverages.”
Criticized for being a bit bland, USC’s offense turned into a blur in front of a national audience on FOX Sports 1. And the Trojans did it without star receiver Marquis Lee, who was out with a knee injury.
As it turned out, they didn’t need him.
By the time the Wildcats settled in, it was 28-3, and that turned out to be too big a hole — albeit barely — to dig out of.
“We waited too late to get going,” Arizona linebacker Marquis Flowers told the Associated Press. “We waited too long to try to execute, and we ran out of time.”