Arizona finishes tough season with win over rival
TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) Arizona had one of its most difficult seasons in program history, on and off the field.
The Wildcats played with heavy hearts all year following the death of a teammate. They endured more injuries than maybe any team in the country. They matched their longest losing streak in 117 years of football, dropping eight straight, and finished with their worst record since 2003.
But as the season wound to a close with Friday night's 56-35 win over rival Arizona State, the Wildcats were able to walk off the Arizona Stadium field with a small sense of joy and a glimmer of hope for next season.
''It certainly doesn't make up for a tough season, but it's a great night,'' Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said. ''It's a great night to be a Wildcat.''
Tough is an understatement.
The season started with grief when fifth-year senior Zach Hemmila, projected to be the starting center, died in his sleep on Aug. 8. Hemmila's death, later ruled to be caused by a mix of medications, left the Wildcats with a hole on the line and a bigger one in their hearts.
Once the season started, Arizona's injury report became a primary point of focus each week as one player after another went down.
Quarterback Anu Solomon started the opener against Brigham Young, but injured his knee in practice the following week. Brandon Dawkins took over and he started getting hit with injuries.
Arizona ended up having five players throw a pass and was forced to use a third-string tight end at quarterback at one point.
The problems stretched to the rest of the offensive backfield.
Arizona was already thin at running back with the dismissal of Orlando Bradford because of domestic violence charges. Then starter Nick Wilson went out with injury. Freshman J.J. Taylor was electric in Wilson's place, but broke his ankle against Washington on Sept. 24 and was done for the season.
The injuries took a toll on Arizona's quick-hitting offense. Typically one of the nation's most prolific teams, the Wildcats finished 66th in the FBS in total yards and 99th in scoring.
Defense was what really hurt Arizona.
The Wildcats have struggled on that side of the ball since Rodriguez arrived and seemed to take a step back this season.
Lacking playmakers or depth, Arizona finished 114th of 128 FBS teams in total defense, allowing 469.3 yards per game, and were 118th in scoring at 38.3 points per game.
''We've made some mistakes in recruiting and probably haven't recruited like we really needed to. I saw it coming,'' Rodriguez said. ''It gets exacerbated when you get a few guys banged up.''
The deficiencies on both sides of the ball led to one of the ugliest stretches in Arizona history.
After winning two of their first three games, the Wildcats lost eight straight, matching the 2003 team for longest in school history. Arizona finished 3-9 and had to beat Arizona State in its final game to avoid the first winless conference season since 1957.
But for that one night, the Wildcats looked like the team Rodriguez had envisioned when the season started.
Though working from a huddle for the first time - to prevent Arizona State from stealing signs - Arizona was at its quick-hitting best again. The Wildcats had three touchdowns of at least 60 yards and racked up a school-record 511 rushing yards to crush their rivals in the seniors' final game in an Arizona uniform.
''We needed this win bad,'' Dawkins said.
Now it's on to the offseason to heal up and fill some of those holes on defense.
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