EUGENE, Ore. - Their Rose Bowl hopes squashed and their season slipping away, the Arizona Wildcats have adopted a mantra heading into tonight's game against No. 1 Oregon.
If you can't join 'em, beat 'em.
"I'm pretty sure that if we do win, it's going to be a big moment in all our lives," tackle Adam Grant said. "I hope something like that can happen. It'll be great for our coaches and us."
Arizona will take its spread- offense slingshot to Autzen Stadium tonight with hopes of felling the nation's top-ranked team on national television.
Along the way, the Wildcats (7-3 overall, 4-3 Pac-10) can help salvage a season that's gone from special to ordinary in a month. The Wildcats have lost two games in a row, dropping from Rose Bowl contention and plummeting in the national polls. The UA can likely punch a ticket to the Alamo or Holiday bowls by winning one of its final two games; after tonight's game, the Wildcats will close out their regular season against rival Arizona State.
The Wildcats players' know tonight might mark their final chance to impact the national championship race. Oregon (10-0, 7-0) would earn a spot in the Bowl Championship Series National Championship Game by winning its two remaining games.
The Ducks certainly have the players to win. Tailback LaMichael James is first nationally with 158 rushing yards per game, and quarterback Darron Thomas runs their famed "Blur" offense with panache.
In order to avoid an ugly finish, the Wildcats must learn how to start.
Arizona has let its opponents score first in four of its last six games, including its 24-21 loss to USC on Nov. 13. During that span, the team has been outscored 45-31 in the first quarter. Stanford led 7-0 through one quarter in its 42-17 win over the UA on Nov. 6; a week later, USC scored 14 consecutive points to put Arizona in a hole at home.
"We've been our own worst enemy on that," coach Mike Stoops said. "We've driven the ball both times the last two games. … I don't know. It's been bad execution, not finishing drives. That's been a theme of ours. … In this league, you've got to take advantage of your scoring opportunities, because teams are going to score points."
Arizona's first-quarter woes can be tied to the team's three biggest areas of concern - poor play in the defensive secondary, red zone struggles and shoddy special teams. The Wildcats went 65 yards in their first drive against USC, only to peter out at the Trojans' 15. After a 32-yard Alex Zendejas field goal attempt was blocked, USC quarterback Matt Barkley led his team on a 10-play, 80-yard drive to take a 7-0 lead.
Arizona's problems were not limited to the Trojans. Washington needed just 3 minutes 27 seconds to score when the teams met Oct. 23. Arizona responded by outscoring the Huskies 44-7 the rest of the way.
"It does take a while lately to get started, but once we do, we're playing good football," defensive end Ricky Elmore said. "Maybe it's just more mental errors, but we still have a good, athletic team."
The Wildcats have tried to shore up all three areas of concern in practice in the two weeks leading up to tonight's game. They can only hope they have found the remedy.
"If I knew exactly what it was all the time," Stoops said, "then we'd fix it."
• What: Arizona at Oregon
• When: 5 p.m.
• TV: ESPN
• Radio: 1290-AM, 107.5-FM
The Arizona Wildcats have been outscored 45-31 in the first quarter of their last six games. Here's a look at the Wildcats' false starts:
Opponent First-quarter score Final score
Oregon State OSU 10, Arizona 7 OSU 29, Arizona 27
Washington State Arizona 7, WSU 0 Arizona 24, WSU 7
Washington Arizona 10, UW 7 Arizona 44, UW 14
UCLA Arizona 7, UCLA 7 Arizona 29, UCLA 21
Stanford Stanford 7, Arizona 0 Stanford 42, Arizona 17
USC USC 14, Arizona 0 USC 24, Arizona 21