They shuffled quarterbacks. They made defensive stops. They rallied repeatedly.
But the Arizona Wildcats couldn’t complete the comeback.
The UA fell to visiting Houston 19-16 in front of an announced crowd of 43,334 at Arizona Stadium on Saturday night.
The Wildcats had multiple chances to tie or take the lead in the second half but couldn’t cash in on them. The Wildcats fell to 1-1. The Cougars, whose season opener last week was canceled because of Hurricane Harvey, are 1-0.
The loss makes 2-1 Arizona’s best-case scenario heading into Pac-12 play and will make qualifying for the postseason that much more difficult.
“We didn’t execute at times. That was the key,” UA coach Rich Rodriguez said. “We played hard. Guys gave good effort. I like our guys’ attention and their attitude, but we just didn’t execute. That costs you. There were a lot of missed opportunities.”
After starting quarterback Brandon Dawkins struggled to move the ball consistently and got “a little nicked up,” according to Rodriguez, the coach turned to sophomore Khalil Tate in the fourth quarter.
Tate immediately led a field-goal drive to make the score 19-16 with 8:32 remaining. But his night ended in Houston territory with an interception.
Rodriguez went back to Dawkins for one final drive with 2:59 left. It lasted only four plays. It began with a Shun Brown drop and ended with Dawkins coming up short on a fourth-down scramble. Houston then ran out the clock.
After scoring 62 points in the opener against Northern Arizona, the UA managed just one touchdown and three field goals. In a game decided by three points, that was critical.
“It’s hard if you can’t put the ball away,” senior guard Jacob Alsadek said. “You’re down there to put seven points up, not three. Four points is a big difference.”
Rodriguez turned to Tate with 12:36 remaining. Tate, who left the season opener after hurting his shoulder in the second half, helped Arizona advance to the UH 24. But on third-and-5, Tate threw the ball behind Tony Ellison. Josh Pollack’s 42-yard field goal trimmed Arizona’s deficit to three points.
After Jace Whittaker wrapped up Linell Bonner for no gain on a third-and-1 pass, Tate directed the Wildcats to the Cougars’ 32. But on first-and-10, Tate threw late and slightly behind Brown on a slant pass. Garrett Davis intercepted it with 3:49 left.
Throughout the week, Arizona fielded questions about and prepared a plan for Houston All-America defensive tackle Ed Oliver. But the play Oliver made on the first possession of the second half was nothing the Wildcats could have prepped for.
On the third play of the half, with Arizona down 17-10, Dawkins broke into the second level of the Houston defense. But the ever-hustling Oliver caught him from behind and knocked the ball away. The Cougars recovered it at their 29-yard line.
Houston advanced to the UA 31, where a strange sequence of events ensued. It did not work to Arizona’s benefit.
UA safety Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles intercepted Kyle Allen at the 3-yard line and returned the ball to the 8. It was Flannigan-Fowles’ third interception of the season, but the Wildcats would have been better off if he had batted the all down; the pick came on fourth-and-5.
“It was just the heat of the moment,” Flannigan-Fowles said. “The ball was kind of floating in the air. If something like that happens again, I’m going to bat it down.”
On the next play, Dawkins mishandled the shotgun snap. The ball bounded into the end zone, where tackle Gerhard de Beer fell on it for a safety. That gave Houston a 19-10 lead with 10:53 left in the third quarter.
Arizona forced Houston to punt, got the ball back and drove to the UH 4-yard line. But on third-and-goal, Dawkins overthrew an open Ellison. The Wildcats had to settle for a 21-yard Pollack field goal that made the score 19-13 with 1:48 left in the third.
The first half was filled with missed opportunities on both sides.
Houston had first-and-goal at the 1-yard line on its second possession but had to settle for a field goal. Arizona had first-and-10 at the UH 15 in the second quarter and came away with nothing.
Pollack’s missed 30-yard field goal might have had something to do with the absence of snapper Nick Reinhardt, who did not play because of an undisclosed injury. Brandon Rutt, the UA’s starting middle linebacker, handled that snap. It was slightly low, leading to a low kick that hit one of UA’s linemen.
The Cougars quickly capitalized. Kyle Allen connected with Keith Corbin for a 49-yard pass to the UA 12. Corbin victimized redshirt-freshman cornerback Lorenzo Burns (who later redeemed himself with an interception).
Three plays later, Allen threw a quick screen to Bonner, who powered through freshman safety Scottie Young Jr. to make it 10-3 with five minutes left in the second quarter.
Arizona answered on the following possession. J.J. Taylor, carrying the load in place of the injured Nick Wilson, gained 44 yards on consecutive carries – including a zigzagging 27-yard scamper. Zach Green finished the drive with a 1-yard run to tie the score at 10-10 with 2:38 left in the half.
Another breakdown by Arizona’s special teams – a strength in Week 1 – helped Houston recapture the lead. John Leday returned the ensuing kickoff – a rare non-touchback from freshman kicker Lucas Havrisik — 81 yards to the Arizona 16. Four plays later, Dillon Birden scored from the 3 to give Houston a 17-10 advantage.
Arizona got the ball back at its 25 with 45 seconds left in the half and all three timeouts but elected to run out the clock.