SAN FRANCISCO — As they delve deeper into preparations for the fast-approaching Foster Farms Bowl, the Arizona Wildcats have a single goal in mind:
Finish what they started.
Remember when Arizona was 6-2 at the end of October? Remember when the Wildcats snuck into the College Football Playoff rankings?
They’re still playing, which is a good thing. Arizona practiced for about 2½ hours on an overcast Sunday afternoon at City College of San Francisco. The UA’s meeting with Purdue at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara is mere days away.
The Wildcats are undoubtedly on the upswing with a young defense, a host of returning starters and a potential superstar quarterback in Khalil Tate.
But the end of the regular season was less than satisfying. Arizona lost three of its final four games, including a maddening come-from-ahead setback against rival Arizona State.
The best part about that game is that it wasn’t the last one. The UA has one more chance to finish this promising season the right way — to send the returning players into the offseason with positive vibes and the departing seniors into the future with a sense of closure.
“It’s very important,” senior defensive tackle Parker Zellers said. “We want to leave with a good taste in our mouth. You don’t want to leave as a senior class with the last game being a loss, especially after losing to ASU. You definitely want to get your money back.”
The last loss lingered longer than most. The Wildcats didn’t have practices or a game the following week. Even when Arizona’s bowl destination became known eight days later, the Territorial Cup remained a topic of conversation.
The Wildcats couldn’t quite let it go, but their angst had a purpose: They could learn from their mistakes in Tempe and resolve not to repeat them.
The biggest lesson, by far: When you have an advantage over an opponent, don’t let up, even for an instant.
“Get up and stay up,” junior cornerback Jace Whittaker said, “so we never have to be in that position again. We didn’t come out with that same swag, with that same energy in the second half.”
The ASU game symbolized the season from the time Tate became the regular quarterback: one good half, one not-so-good.
Arizona went 4-0 in October, 1-3 in November — with the one win coming over one-win Oregon State.
The Wildcats led the Sun Devils 24-14 at the break — an advantage that could have been larger with a different approach to the end of the half. Adding injury to insult, Tate got hurt and was unavailable for most of the final two quarters.
In the third, Arizona got absolutely ambushed. The Sun Devils outscored the Wildcats 21-0.
“We went into halftime pretty confident,” receiver Tony Ellison said. “We thought they were soft. We were kind of getting ready to go home. Then look what happened.
“The message is to play 60 minutes, like Coach Rod (Rich Rodriguez) emphasizes every week. Don’t settle when things are going our way.”
Tate’s injury, a blocked punt and a turnover were the obvious culprits. Arizona didn’t handle any of it well. When adversity struck, the Wildcats wilted. Therein lies lesson No. 2.
“We’ve gotta keep our head down and keep grinding when bad things happen,” Whittaker said. “We kind of felt sorry for ourselves a little bit instead of getting mad and getting it back.”
What’s easily forgotten — except among bitter UA fans — is that Arizona almost did get it back. Despite the awful third quarter, Tate going down and the momentum shift whipping Sun Devil Stadium into a frenzy, the Wildcats appeared to regain the lead in the fourth quarter.
But a questionable penalty negated Shun Brown’s 74-yard punt return for a touchdown. That’s where lesson No. 3 comes in.
“Don’t put it in the refs’ hands,” Brown said. “They made a couple bad calls. If we were up and going throughout, it wouldn’t (have mattered).
“From now on, we just need to go out and whup everybody.”
Arizona is a modest favorite over Purdue, which won three of its last four to gain bowl eligibility. Capping the season with a victory, by whatever margin, would validate the Wildcats’ October run.
It wouldn’t necessarily have everyone feeling fulfilled, though.
“We want to be the best we can be,” Ellison said. “We’re not settling for anything less (than) going to a Pac-12 championship.
“Obviously, we’re feeling OK about what happened. We were picked to finish last in the Pac-12, dead last. That was kind of our motivation all year – prove a lot of people wrong. We were happy about that.
“But we just can’t settle for 7-5. That’s not us. We don’t want to be that team.”
Even Tate came away from the regular season feeling as if he hadn’t accomplished all that much, summing up his year as “pretty average.” Sure, he set multiple records, thrust himself into the Heisman Trophy conversation and was the driving force behind Arizona’s turnaround.
But what did it amount to, really? As Ellison mentioned, the Wildcats aspire to win championships. Tate won an unprecedented four consecutive Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week awards. He’d trade them all in for a few more victories.
“That wasn’t enough, obviously,” Tate said of his individual accolades.
So what would be then?
“A Pac-12 championship,” he said. “Then whatever New Year’s Six bowl comes after that.”
- Reserve quarterback Donavan Tate has left the team. Tate, the former No. 3 overall pick in the MLB draft, joined Arizona as a walk-on in the summer. He appeared in one game this season, against UTEP.
- Defensive linemen Luca Bruno (concussion) and Justin Belknap (knee) appeared to be practicing in full after missing the ASU game.
- Jake Glatting and Matt Aragon handled the punting duties during the open portion of practice.
- New offensive line coach Garin Justice left San Francisco to retrieve his family after attending meetings and practice Saturday. He will be back for the game and will serve in an advisory role. Graduate assistant Kyle Quinn is coaching the line in the meantime.
- The team worked out in shorts and shells on the turf at CCSF’s George M. Rush Stadium. The Wildcats will hold a light practice Monday and a final walk-through Tuesday.