The door to the visitor’s locker room shook like thunder. Cheering, yelling, clapping and singing all blared out the bottom two inches of the door frame.
It was the loudest Arizona Stadium got all day.
Washington State, the owner of a 6-27 conference record since the start of 2010, topped Arizona 24-17 Saturday in front of a generously announced crowd of 42,080.
“I could give you a litany of excuses,” UA coach Rich Rodriguez said. “We had a good week of practice, but we didn’t play well, we didn’t coach well. It was a comedy of errors at times. We did things that we hadn’t done all year.
“You have to give them some credit, but we didn’t play well, that’s for sure. Our margin of error isn’t very big, and I’ve said that many times.”
On Monday, Rodriguez asked Arizona fans to show up Saturday afternoon. His team was coming off a tough, physical 31-26 loss to nationally ranked UCLA.
The last thing Rodriguez wanted to see from the Wildcats was a letdown against a struggling Cougars team.
His worst fears were realized. His players, though, refused to blame the half-full stadium on their bad performance. The special teams units struggled, and a last-minute drive fell short.
“It didn’t really matter,” senior wide receiver Terrence Miller said of the light crowd. “We have to come play football, whether it’s packed or just a couple of people. We have to execute regardless, and we didn’t do that today.”
Linebacker Jake Fischer said the crowd “shouldn’t hurt us at all. We practice to go out and make plays, and we didn’t make enough today.”
Two plays in particular will haunt the Wildcats.
The first came with 2:15 left in the game. With the game tied at 17, Washington State faced third-and-four from Arizona’s 25-yard line.
Cougars quarterback Connor Halliday took a shotgun snap and was forced out of the pocket to his right. The junior quarterback threw a strike to Isiah Myers, who hauled it in at the 7-yard line. UA sophomore safety Will Parks had a chance to tackle Myers, but whiffed; the junior scampered in for the go-ahead touchdown.
Rodriguez said he wasn’t sure what happened on the play.
“I’ll have to talk to the defensive coaches and see if there was a bust (in coverage) or just poor execution,” the second-year coach said.
For the second straight week, quarterback B.J. Denker and the Arizona offense got the ball deep in their own territory, needing a touchdown. Against UCLA, the group couldn’t generate a first down.
This time, Arizona drove down to Washington State’s 13-yard line and faced a fourth-and-four as the clock ran under 5 seconds.
Here’s the second play that will terrorize the Wildcats.
Denker initially couldn’t find an open receiver; after buying some time, he lobbed a pass to freshman Samajie Grant near the sideline in the end zone. Grant leapt and grabbed it, but came down out of bounds as time expired.
The players on WSU’s sideline stormed the field. The game was over.
Arizona’s final play came after Denker rushed for 2 yards on third-and-six. Rather than go out of bounds, the quarterback tried to juke a Washington State defender and was tackled inbounds. As a result, there wasn’t much strategy on the final play.
“No, not with the clock running out,” Rodriguez said. “That’s one thing we have to get better at. If we’re not scoring, get out of bounds or kill the clock, so we can call a play. At that time, you just have to get a play off.”
It was a sluggish ending for the Wildcats, who never looked sharp.
Washington State grabbed a 10-0 lead early and outgained Arizona 184-94 in the first quarter. The Wildcats punted twice and fumbled once on three of their first four possessions.
There were also two missed field goals, a 17-yard punt and mishandled snap from punter Drew Riggleman.
“It’s a tough one; they’re all tough,” Rodriguez said. “Even as poorly as we played, we still had opportunities, so that’s what makes it even harder to stomach.”
Halliday finished 39 for 53 for 319 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Denker went 26 for 38 for 200 yards and a touchdown.
Ka’Deem Carey had a productive day, rushing for 132 yards on 26 carries, but for the second straight game, the All-America running back wasn’t much, if any, of a factor on the team’s final drive. He had a 15-yard catch to open the drive and didn’t touch the ball on the final six plays.
Rodriguez said he would have liked to get the ball to Carey more, but it was a matter of how the defense is playing.
“They’re going to let him get it and then tackle him in bounds and run the clock,” Rodriguez said. “But I didn’t think we opened up very many holes for Ka’Deem all day.”
Whether it was the lack of Carey’s involvement, the small crowd or just a bad day, the Wildcats have to find a way to deal with the loss.
“We practiced very well all week, but we just didn’t do what we needed to do and that’s entirely on us and I take blame for that,” Fischer said.