Saturday night's showdown with USC was supposed to be a statement game, a pivot-point in an Arizona Wildcats season that could have been something special.
Instead, the UA slipped. And shanked. And got stripped.
USC controlled the clock, moved the sticks and forced a pair of turnovers on the way to a 24-21 win before 54,722 chilly fans at Arizona Stadium.
It probably wasn't that close: The Trojans bullied their way from end zone to end zone, controlling the clock for nearly two-thirds of the game. Arizona cut USC's lead to three points with 1:01 remaining, but was unable to recover the ensuing onside kick.
It was the kind of night, coach Mike Stoops said, that contained "segments of good - but not enough."
Linebacker Paul Vassallo saw more bad than good.
"It's not like they're better than us," he said. "We're making mistakes and beating ourselves."
Arizona outgained USC 404 yards to 382, but - for the second straight week - was dominated on both lines. Quarterback Nick Foles completed 32 of 48 passes for 353 yards and three touchdowns, but was haunted by turnovers and red-zone problems. Foles was stripped deep in USC territory in the first quarter, a fumble that led to a Trojans score. Wide receiver David Douglas coughed up the ball a quarter later, giving USC possession at its own 22.
"We made some mistakes," Stoops said, "and, in the end, we got put in a very desperate situation."
Arizona (7-3, 4-3 Pac-10) played without running back Nicolas Grigsby and wide receivers David Roberts and Bug Wright, all out with injuries. And while the Wildcats received unexpected production from wideout Terrence Miller (seven catches, 116 yards), an interception by safety Adam Hall and a bounce-back showing from Foles, it wasn't enough to overpower USC.
The Trojans rushed 46 times for 205 yards, mirroring the Stanford attack that defeated Arizona 42-17 a week ago. Tailback Marc Tyler ran for 160 yards and a score. The Trojans held the ball for 37 minutes 27 seconds Saturday night, including all but 2:36 of the fourth quarter.
"We've played back-to-back physical teams and we didn't play well against either," Stoops said. "USC had the ball for 37 and a half minutes. That's too much time."
Hall credited USC's "good concepts and a sound quarterback."
"They took advantage of the field and the spacing," he said.
And, unlike Arizona, the Trojans (7-3, 4-3) took advantage of their opportunities.
Gifted the ball after Alex Zendejas missed a 32-yard field goal on the Wildcats' first possession, USC drove 80 yards in 10 plays to take a 7-0 lead on quarterback Matt Barkley's 1-yard run. The Trojans then got the ball back, sacking Foles and forcing a fumble that they recovered on the UA's 22.
Three plays later, Barkley found Ellison - the son of former Amphitheater High School star Riki Ellison - for a touchdown, making it 14-0.
Arizona rallied in the second quarter, cutting the Trojans' lead to seven points. Foles hit receiver David Douglas on a 5-yard touchdown pass with 12:50 left in the half, then - after Tyler's 3-yard run made it 21-7 - followed it a 31-yard hookup with Travis Cobb. Running a pared-down version of the no-huddle offense, Foles looked better than he did in last week's loss to Stanford.
Yet the quarterback couldn't get within range of a win. Foles found Douglas with an 11-yard scoring pass with 61 seconds left, pulling Arizona within a field goal. When John Bonano's onside kick failed, the Trojans ran out the clock.
The Wildcats were a possession - and a score - short. Had they started faster, UA players said, they would have won.
"We didn't have the same intensity as we normally do," cornerback Robert Golden said. "We have to feed off ourselves.
"When somebody makes a play, it needs to get higher and higher."
For now, Arizona will lie low. The Wildcats will take their second bye of the season this week, then finish their regular season with games against No. 1 Oregon and rival Arizona State.
They can't afford another slip-up.
"Our mission is to go out and win these next two games," Douglas said. "We have to get back to work, get excited and get motivated."
• Who: Arizona at Oregon
• When: 5 p.m., Nov. 26
• TV: ESPN
• Radio: 1290-AM, 107.5-FM