LOS ANGELES — Maybe this was bound to happen.
Maybe, at some point, the surging Arizona Wildcats would run into a superior opponent who wouldn’t let Khalil Tate and crew run wild.
Tate had become the talk of college football in October, setting records, entering the Heisman Trophy conversation and leading Arizona to a four-game winning streak. After finishing last in the Pac-12 – and being picked to repeat that dubious feat — the Wildcats gained bowl eligibility and landed at No. 22 in the first College Football Playoff rankings.
Arizona came to the L.A. Memorial Coliseum on Saturday with a chance to grab sole possession of first place in the Pac-12 South – an inconceivable notion as recently as late September. Standing in the Wildcats’ way: No. 17 USC, which had an 18-4 record against Arizona in Los Angeles entering Saturday.
The Trojans turned out to be better … barely.
Arizona rallied to tie USC in the fourth quarter before allowing the Trojans to pull away. USC defeated Arizona 49-35 to snap the Wildcats’ four-game winning streak.
The victory gave the Trojans control of the Pac-12 South. They are 8-2 overall, 6-1 in conference play. Arizona fell to 6-3, 4-2.
It was the Wildcats’ largest loss of the season. Their previous two defeats had come by a combined nine points.
But in a game that looked like a blowout halfway through the third quarter, Arizona gave USC everything it could handle.
Tate made his first career start against USC last October. He was still only 17 years old. Arizona fell behind early and folded, losing 48-14.
Oh, how things have changed.
Behind Tate and a suddenly stingy defense, these Wildcats wouldn’t go quietly. They trailed 28-6 with 6:04 left in the third quarter. They mounted an epic comeback.
Tate, who was bottled up for most of the night, finally broke free. His 32-yard touchdown run made it 28-13 with 4:30 left in the third.
After the defense forced a three-and-out — punctuated by Luca Bruno’s sack of Sam Darnold on third down — Tate and the offense needed just five plays to make it a one-score game, 28-20. Tate started the drive with a 21-yard run and finished it with a 30-yard touchdown pass to Shun Brown.
USC struck back, going 75 yards in six plays. Aca’Cedric Ware’s 42-yard touchdown run made it 35-20 with 13:56 remaining in the game.
But no one can strike quicker than Arizona, which needed just 1 minute, 37 seconds to get back within a touchdown. Tate again started the drive with his legs, ripping off a 54-yard run. He again finished the drive with a TD pass, hitting J.J. Taylor from 16 yards out. The extra point made it 35-27 with 12:19 left.
After forcing a punt, Arizona got the ball back at the USC 47-yard line. Six plays later, Zach Green plowed in from the 3 to trim the deficit to 35-33. Tate’s two-point conversion pass to a leaping Tony Ellison tied the score with 8:23 remaining.
Tate finished with 161 rushing yards and became the first Pac-12 quarterback to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season.
Once the game was tied, Arizona’s defense faltered.
USC went 72 yards in seven plays, capped by Ronald Jones II’s 1-yard TD run. After a Tate interception — a rare forced pass downfield — the Trojans bumped the lead to 14 on another Jones 1-yard score.
Tate’s night ended with another pick, this time the result of Brown bobbling the ball into the hands of USC linebacker John Houston Jr.
USC compiled 642 yards of offense, becoming the second straight UA opponent to top 600 yards. Darnold passed for 311 yards and Jones rushed for 194 and three touchdowns.
The Wildcats looked nothing like their October selves in the first half. Last month was filled with one explosive play after another. Tate had at least one run of 70 or more yards in every game during Arizona’s four-game winning streak. The Wildcats averaged 48.8 points.
In the first 30 minutes Saturday night all Arizona could manage was two field goals. And the Wildcats’ longest play was 12 yards.
USC coach Clay Helton had said during the week that the Trojans needed to limit Tate’s explosive plays. Helton basically espoused the Dan Patrick approach: You can’t stop Tate, but maybe USC could contain him.
The Trojans did exactly that in the first half. Tate found little room to run, gaining just 19 yards on 12 carries. That included yards lost on sacks. USC sacked Tate three times in the first half. He wasn’t sacked a single time in October.
Tate couldn’t get anything going through the air either. A 68.7 percent passer entering Saturday, Tate completed just 5 of 12 attempts for 37 yards in the first two quarters.
Sometimes he overthrew receivers who had gotten open. Most of the time the Trojans blanketed the Wildcats’ would-be pass catchers.
Arizona trailed 21-6 at the half, and it could have been worse. The Wildcats stopped Darnold on a fourth-and-1 sneak from the UA 17-yard line in the first quarter. Later in the period, Dane Cruikshank intercepted Darnold in the end zone.
Two trips into the red zone, zero points for USC.
Arizona also gifted USC a touchdown. Punter Josh Pollack couldn’t handle a low snap. His attempt got blocked, and USC’s Jalen Greene returned the ball 11 yards for the game’s first touchdown.
USC set a physical tone early by pounding away at Arizona’s defense. The Trojans rushed for 132 yards in the first quarter. That opened up passing opportunities for Darnold, who threw for two scores in the second quarter.
Despite having already exceeded expectations entering Saturday, the Wildcats insisted they were hungry for more.
“We’ve been hungry since we stepped on the field Game 1,” UA cornerback Lorenzo Burns said during the week. “We wanted to shock the world. Nobody had faith in us. Picked to be last in the Pac-12. Knowing that, we just wanted to come out and (prove) everybody wrong.
“We still want to. We want to finish strong. We want to show that we deserve to be ranked high, we deserve to be talked about. We want to start something that hasn’t been (done) for a long time. We want a tradition here. We want our name to be brought up on ESPN.”
The Wildcats got their shot in the spotlight Saturday night. They weren’t quite ready for it.