Just when the Arizona Wildcats seemed to have the problem solved, it became an issue yet again.
Stop if you’ve heard this one before: Special teams gave Arizona fits on Saturday in its 24-17 loss to Washington State.
Kicker Jake Smith missed two makeable field goals, punter Drew Riggleman had a 17-yard punt and mishandled a snap that resulted in a fumble.
All four plays killed the Wildcats at important times.
Smith’s first miss came from 40 yards as time expired in the first half. The UA was leading Washington State 14-10, but missed a chance to extend its lead before getting the ball to open the second half.
Smith got a chance at redemption midway through the fourth quarter. With the game tied at 17, coach Rich Rodriguez called on Smith to attempt a 34-yarder. The senior hooked it left and the game remained tied.
“He’s been kicking pretty well,” Rodriguez said. “There was a little bit of wind in his face, but he’s got a strong enough leg that he’ll usually make those.”
But he didn’t. After his second miss, Washington State drove 80 yards on 10 plays for the winning touchdown.
“Special teams miscues; field goals, easy field goals missed, that’s stuff that we should make plays on and we just didn’t do it,” the coach said.
Smith wasn’t alone on the special teams follies.
The Wildcats were forced to punt on their first drive of the game. Riggleman, who averaged 51.8 yards per punt last week against the Bruins, shanked the kick.
Washington State took over on its own 40-yard line and went 60 yards on seven plays for the first touchdown of the game.
Then, with Arizona leading 14-10 early in the third quarter, the punter muffed a low snap from Chase Gorham. Riggleman eventually got a grip on the ball, but didn’t swing his leg in time to get the kick away; Washington State recovered at Arizona’s 31-yard line. Six plays later, the Cougars scored a touchdown and took a 17-14 lead.
The UA players refused to blame special teams for the loss, as glaring as the mistakes were.
“Little stuff like that happens all the time, but you still have to pull out a win,” linebacker Jake Fischer said. “All three phases, we didn’t play as well as we should have. But if we would have played better on the defensive side of the ball, we would have won.”
Wide receiver Trey Griffey made the most of his first career start.
The redshirt freshman caught four passes for 45 yards Saturday. He tied with Ka’Deem Carey and Nate Phillips for the team lead in receiving yards.
Griffey hadn’t caught a pass in his career entering Saturday’s loss; in fact, he had seen very little playing time in the team’s first nine games.
But Rodriguez liked what he saw from Griffey in the week leading up to the game and gave him a shot.
“I thought he played pretty well,” Rodriguez said. “Just from my vantage point, he competed. He was getting better, getting better. We tried to give some of the other guys a break.”
Griffey started over sophomore David Richards, who finished without a catch.
The start was bittersweet for Griffey.
He watched as one of his best friends scored the winning TD for the Cougars.
Isiah Myers, who, like Griffey, grew up in Orlando, Fla., caught the game-winner from quarterback Connor Halliday with 2:15 left.
“We played Pop Warner since age 9 together,” Myers said of Griffey. “His family helped me out a lot. I didn’t know this was his first career start. I just looked on Twitter and found it out. I’m proud of him. He’s worked for it through his days in high school and here. He’s proved he’s got what it takes.”
Extra prep time
Washington State and coach Mike Leach had 16 days to prepare for the Wildcats.
Rodriguez said he didn’t know if the Cougars were fresher because of it, but did see a few new wrinkles.
“Defensively, we saw some things different,” Rodriguez said. “But that’s 90 percent of the teams we play, they’ll do something different when we play them. It’s only 11 guys and it’s not like you can’t adjust to it and don’t know how they’re playing us after the first series.”
Washington State ran the ball 27 times. The Cougars entered Saturday’s game only averaging 17.3 rushes per game.
Leach’s team still threw it plenty, attempting 53 passes.
“For the most part, it was pretty standard,” junior defensive end Reggie Gilbert said. “I feel like they ran the ball more than usual. Defensively, we knew they were going to pass the ball a lot and we just weren’t able to stop them.”
— Ka’Deem Carey, who finished with 132 yards on 26 carries, is now 118 yards away from breaking Trung Canidate’s school career rushing record of 3,824 yards. Carey now has 1,353 rushing yards on the season, which is the fourth most in school history.
The Canyon del Oro product has gone over 100 yards in 13 straight games.
— Saturday’s win was Washington’s State’s first in Tucson since a 20-19 victory in 2004. The Cougars lost at Arizona Stadium in 2007 and 2009. The two teams didn’t play the past two seasons.