Sloppy Wildcats caught in Cougars’ trap in loss

TUCSON, Ariz. — Trap games? Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said before Saturday’s game that he didn’t believe in them.

He might now.

Arizona didn’t recover from last week’s 31-26 loss to UCLA and didn’t have enough focus to not look ahead to Oregon next week, getting knocked off 24-17 by Washington State in front of a season-low 42,080 fans at Arizona Stadium.

Whether those were truly the results of a trap-game setting or not, that’s certainly how it will be perceived. And sometimes, perception is all that matters.

The reality is that Arizona has lost two straight and is now 6-4 overall and 3-4 in the Pac-12, with two not-exactly-easy games remaining, after Saturday’s disappointing loss.

It happens to the best of programs, and it certainly happens to those still looking to get there.

“Arizona is a good team,” said Washington State coach Mike Leach. “They were on a
roll for a significant portions of the season this year. We had
contributions in all phases, so it was a good win.”

Added Washington State linebacker Darryl Moore: “It feels like the USC game (a 10-7 Cougars win) but more intense. It gives us a lot of confidence.”

Washington State is now 5-5 overall and 3-4 in the Pac-12 after upsetting Arizona, a two-touchdown favorite.

For a game that started at high noon, it might as well have been played under a full moon.

Wildcats senior linebacker Jake Fischer said there were a number of “bonehead plays,” and it’d be hard to argue that.

Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez referred to it as “a comedy of errors at times.”

There were dropped snaps, special-teams miscues, easy field-goal attempts missed, costly mistakes on third downs …

“We didn’t play well, that’s for sure,” Rodriguez said.

The
comedy turned to tragedy by the end, with Arizona trying for the second straight week to put together a late touchdown drive to tie or win.

This time, the Wildcats went from their own 25-yard line, mostly thanks to the scrambling of senior quarterback B.J.
Denker, to the Cougars’ 13-yard line, where Denker was tackled before getting out of bounds to
stop the clock with 16 seconds left. Arizona scrambled back to the line to get off a final play, but
Denker’s pass to Samajie Grant at the sideline in the end zone was caught out of bounds as time expired.

Rodriguez said Denker needed to get out of bounds on the prior play unless he had a chance to score.

“At that time, you just have to get a play off,” Rodriguez said. “We didn’t do a good job with that.”

But Denker,
who wasn’t made available to the media after the game, was the main reason Arizona was in position to tie. On a
fourth-and-7 at Washington State 28-yard line, Denker scrambled out of a mess, barely avoiding a sack
and sprinting to his right to get the first down. He proceeded to throw an incompletion and then a 4-yard
completion to Trey Griffey before his scramble to the 13.

“He’s
just trying to make a play … at the end there, he probably should have
thrown it away,” Rodriguez said of Denker’s scramble. “He’s an
upperclassman but has rarely played. He competed, but I don’t think
anyone had their best game.”

On the final drive, Denker completed
three passes to All-American running back Ka’Deem Carey — for 15 yards, 11 yards
and 2 yards — but for the most part, Carey’s impact late in the game was limited. And it was a tough day overall for the senior, save for his two touchdowns — a 30-yard run that cut the Wildcats’ deficit to 10-7 and then a 7-yard screen pass that put them ahead 14-10. He finished
with 132 yards, 20 fewer than his season average.

“I didn’t think we opened up any holes for Ka’Deem all day,” Rodriguez said.

Of the tough losses for Rodriguez in his near-two-year stint at Arizona, this might have been the worst, although last season’s regular-season-ending, come-from-ahead defeat at the hands of Arizona State also would have to be considered.

“It’s a tough one. They are all tough,” said Rodriguez. “This wasn’t a good one, that’s for sure. But I don’t know of any good loss. I don’t think any of our guys would accept a loss at all. This one is disappointing because, even as poorly as we played, we still had opportunities. That makes it even harder to stomach … play poorly and still make one or two plays at the end and you can pull it out.

“We’ve got to play much better than this.”

It’s not like he hasn’t warned those who would listen. Although, by the look of the crowd, it’s not clear how many are listening. It was Arizona’s smallest crowd of the year, even on a picturesque day (not including the quality of football being played).

“I thought the crowd that was there was into the game,” Rodriguez said. “I appreciate them staying. I think most stayed until the end. It came down to the last play.”

Said Wildcats receiver Terrance Miller: “It didn’t matter (about the small crowd). We have to play, whether it’s packed or there are two people here. We have to execute regardless, and we didn’t do that.”

Arizona never appeared up for the game, with the possible exception of the final two minutes when it desperately needed a score (but couldn’t get one).

“I could give you a litany of excuses,” Rodriguez said. “Poor execution …”

It was that kind of afternoon for the Wildcats, who could have separated themselves from the Cougars in the first half but didn’t because of fumble and missed 40-yard field goal to end the half. Jake Smith, who was lauded for hitting a 53-yard field goal two weeks ago, missed again from 34 yards with 6:59 left in the game.

“He’s been kicking pretty well,” Rodriguez said of Smith, who wasn’t made available to the media. “There was a little bit of wind to our face, but he’s got a strong leg. We usually make those.”

Rodriguez went on to say the team practiced well all week but added, “We didn’t play well and didn’t coach well.”

And all year, Rodriguez has repeated that the Wildcats aren’t at a level where they can afford to make mistakes or play a poor game and expect to win. He said it again after this one.

“Our margin is not very big … I’ve said it many times,” Rodriguez said.

He added, “I want our guys to be optimistic, but I want them to be realistic.”

Rodriguez also said his defense, despite getting four sacks, wasn’t what it needed to be in getting to Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday, who effectively avoid much of the pressure he did get from Arizona’s defense while passing 319 yards and two touchdowns, including the go-ahead score to Isiah Myers with 2:15 left. Myers made a leaping catch near the sideline, then spun away from defensive back William Parks’ attempted tackle and got into the end zone.

“It should not have gotten to that play,” Fischer said.

Said Rodriguez: “It was just poor execution.”

Reasons aside, Arizona will have to regroup quickly: Oregon comes to town next week.

“We have one of the best teams in the country coming in,” Rodriguez said.