This is not the end. It is the beginning.

An exasperating loss to a bad team. Shanked punts, missed kicks. No pass rush. A botched two-minute drill. Thousands of empty seats.

This does not happen by accident. It does not happen because Washington State had 16 days of rest and preparation.

“It was a comedy of errors at times,” Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said.

Arizona lost 24-17 to the Cougars on Saturday because, as RichRod said, “that’s just where we’re at.”

It will not end here, in mid-November 2013. Unlike so many Pac-12 opponents who have had time to stock the shelves, teams like Oregon and UCLA and ASU, teams who eagerly look at the calendar and can’t wait for next week and for 2014, Arizona is not going to get better in the short term.

Oregon. Gulp.

Arizona State. Cover your eyes.

It is the schedule from hell. Arizona no longer can delay the inevitable by beating Cal and Colorado.

For the first time in his 23 games at Arizona, RichRod has surely come to understand that his team’s progress has been muted. Given its depth chart and level of talent, it might take another 23 games for the Wildcats to regroup and be much more than fodder in Pac-12 football.

This was the one game on the conference schedule between now and 2015 at which an Arizona fan could point to the calendar and declare “win.”

Do you fully realize how inept WSU has been? The Cougars were not just 7-44 in their past 51 conference games, they also had yielded an average of 603 yards and 56 points in their last five games.

On Saturday, the Cougars outplayed Arizona on offense, defense and special teams. The Cougars played with more purpose and confidence, dealing Arizona its most disconcerting home conference loss since the 1-8 Washington Huskies won here in 2005.

The Cougars rose. The Wildcats fell. Wasn’t it supposed to be trending the other way?

“We made some bonehead mistakes,’’ said UA senior linebacker Jake Fischer.

In the final 1:01, Ka’Deem Carey, inside WSU’s 32-yard line, the UA’s “Captain All-America,” did not touch the ball. Not in six plays.

“We didn’t coach well, either,” said RichRod.

In the end, after embracing each of his assistant coaches as they walked to the WSU locker room, Mike Leach said what RichRod has been able to say for 23 games.

He said his team is “getting older” and “getting better.” You cannot say that if you coach the Wildcats.

Now you wonder how long it will take Arizona to replace the leftovers from the Mike Stoops days, the leaders of this team, and get back to where it was two weeks ago after sweeping Cal, Colorado and Utah.

Now the Wildcats must face the middle of the lineup and then hope the transition season ahead, 2014, will be kind.

RichRod is an upbeat, bury-the-mistakes-and-move-on coach, but he must’ve been troubled when he trotted onto the turf for Saturday’s kickoff. Where’d everybody go? The UA fudged on the in-house attendance numbers, announcing 42,080, but it was closer to 35,000.

It was embarrassing. It was probably the smallest crowd at Arizona Stadium since November 1997, when 37,111 showed up (or didn’t) to see the 4-5 Wildcats beat Cal in double overtime.

Arizona played soft. WSU played like it had a bowl game at stake.

The economic laws of college football in Tucson played a significant role in Saturday’s spiritless atmosphere.

If you have three home games in three weeks, as the Wildcats do, it’s a heavy load on the average guy’s pocket book. So he picks two games, UCLA and Oregon, and washes his car on a 73-degree afternoon when, ugh, Wazzu, is on the marquee.

This one was as much on Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott as anybody. Who draws up a schedule that has a team out of town for all but one game over 57 days, and then home on three successive weekends?

It was a trap game and Arizona walked right into it. Isn’t that what young and rebuilding teams do?

To his credit, RichRod didn’t whine.

“I thought the crowd that was there stayed into the game pretty well,” he said.

But inside, unless he’s not human, the coach must be asking himself if this is the way it will always be at Arizona Stadium. Will there ever be unconditional support?

Is this really a place to dig in and make a stand for the next five or 10 years?

It makes you wonder if the fans are as committed to UA football as the coach is.

Saturday’s loss was not a step back as much as it was Arizona finding its place. It had masqueraded as a semi-contender at midseason, making the most of the league’s bottom feeders. In the end, the Wildcats have become a bottom feeder themselves.

Contact sports columnist Greg Hansen at 520-573-4145 or On Twitter @ghansen711

Sports columnist for the Arizona Daily Star.