Houston drove to Arizona’s 1-yard line four minutes into Saturday’s game at Arizona Stadium, at which time UA defensive back Dane Cruikshank knelt in the end zone and lost his pre-game dinner all over the artificial turf.
Two Arizona trainers attended to the wobbly Cruikshank and cleaned up the mess.
It would be nice to say that Arizona’s 19-16 loss to the Cougars can be similarly scrubbed and forgotten, but that’s not the way it works in a 12-game season.
Each loss, especially one to an unranked team from the unexceptional American Athletic Conference, is unpardonable if you are coming off a 3-9 season and ticket sales are in the tank.
When UA quarterback Brandon Dawkins was tackled short of a first down with two minutes to play Saturday night, there weren’t more than 15,000 people at Arizona Stadium.
If you think Cruikshank was sick early in the game, imagine the ill feeling that almost overwhelmed Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez with 3 minutes, 40 seconds remaining. Substitute quarterback Khalil Tate had just thrown a fatal interception into double-coverage at the Houston 32.
Rodriguez buried his face in a towel and muffled his reaction, and then tossed the towel to a manager.
A season that started just eight days earlier now has the haunting feeling of being over just as it begins.
In the silence that engulfed Arizona Stadium a few minutes before 11 p.m., those who endured the full 60 minutes of a listless game had to think the same thing the UA coaching staff will think when it breaks down the game tape Sunday.
Houston isn’t very good. The Cougars beat a Pac-12 team on the road by doing as little as possible, with a minimum of big plays, gaining just 383 yards a week after small-school NAU rolled up 562 yards on the Wildcats.
And if the Cougars aren’t very good, what does that make Arizona?
The enormity of RichRod’s self-described “reboot” is now manifest. The Wildcats get a supposed freebie on Friday night in El Paso, playing a UTEP team that was whacked 31-14 by a Rice team that was embarrassed 62-7 by Stanford, but after that Arizona’s schedule comes off as a series of never-ending pit bulls.
If you were looking for a happy ending, look away.
“A lot of missed opportunities,” RichRod said after the game. “There were a lot of opportunities for the offense to win the game.”
The best opportunity came in the final 6:50, when RichRod inserted sophomore Khalil Tate. And why not? Even though Tate had thrown just 45 passes in his career (with three interceptions) Brandon Dawkins had been ineffective, not only in the passing game, but he also fumbled on consecutive possessions to start the second half.
Arizona got a momentum-changing play from junior cornerback Jace Whittaker with 6:55 remaining. He blew through a Houston receiver and a blocker on a third-and-1 play to force a punt. In came Tate, who carefully followed a don’t-lose-the-game script, throwing to the perimeter against man coverage, and scrambling for first downs when needed (he rushed four times for 24 yards).
The stage was set for Tate to be a star.
Good teams take the opportunity, especially at home, and win.
But Tate got greedy, throwing into double-coverage over the middle and Houston intercepted with 3:01 on the clock.
In its opening game, Houston mostly played a vanilla offense. Quarterback Kyle Allen didn’t make a killer mistake, and Major Applewhite’s team played bend-but-don’t break defense, controlling the line of scrimmage as lineman Ed Oliver made 11 tackles.
“He’s a really good second-effort guy,” said UA guard Jacob Alsadek.
It was those second-efforts and a minimum of mistakes that enabled Houston to never trail.
In the third quarter, Dawkins missed what looked to be a sure touchdown in the third period when Tony Ellison broke free, virtually uncovered in the end zone. Dawkins threw wild, high.
One bad pass.
One bad loss.
Now you wonder how much it will cost Arizona in future home games. The Wildcats drew just 43,334 for the Cougars. A week earlier they announced attendance of 43,620 against NAU. The last time Arizona opened the season with two smaller crowds was in 2003, when it drew back-to-back audiences of 40,264 against UTEP and 40,462 against Washington State.
Arizona isn’t the only Pac-12 team wondering what went wrong. Arizona State lost at home to San Diego State on Saturday, Oregon State was humbled at home by Minnesota and Cal barely escaped losing at home to small-school Weber State.
But what hurts most for Arizona is that Houston appeared to be the swing game on the schedule, a must-win if the Wildcats were to reach .500, qualify for a bowl game and fill so many of those empty seats at Arizona Stadium.
If you feel like burying your face in a towel the way RichRod did Saturday night, you’re not alone.