The anatomy of a lost night in 31 seconds:
With 2:26 remaining in the third quarter of Saturday’s Arizona-Houston game, the Wildcats recaptured the momentum and quarterback Brandon Dawkins was the dominant player on the field.
He had completed 6 of 7 passes in a sharp 82-yard drive that reached Houston’s 5-yard line. The Cougars led 19-10, but unless something fully unexpected happened — unless Dawkins got hurt — it felt like a game Arizona would ultimately win.
Rallying to beat Houston would buy some time and put Arizona’s football season on a path to potential success, mute the chatter about Rich Rodriguez’s job security and possibly put another 5,000 or 10,000 in the seats for a Sept. 22 Pac-12 opener against Utah.
It all changed in 31 seconds.
On second down from the 5, Dawkins sprinted left, a designed running play behind lead blocker Zach Green, a seldom-used tailback. But the Cougars anticipated a Dawkins run and swarmed to the ball, forcing him inside; Green’s block was ineffective.
Seven yards from scrimmage, Houston’s 6-foot-2-inch, 236-pound linebacker Matthew Adams watched the play develop. He had an unobstructed path to Dawkins, who spun to his left after an initial hit.
At full speed, Adams smacked into Dawkins’ fully exposed left side with the force of a mini-freight train. It was the 12th time Dawkins had been tackled while running, some of them jarring, helmet-rattling hits. He also had been hit three times while throwing a pass.
This tackle by Adams clearly shook Dawkins. He stooped over and walked slowly. But football’s tough-guy creed says that you play on; after a few seconds of collecting himself, Dawkins looked to the sideline, got a play-signal from the bench and prepared for third-and-goal from the 4.
In hindsight, it would’ve been a good time to stop play and make certain Dawkins was good to go.
There was 1:59 on the clock. It would be the most telling play in a game of 145 plays and a play that could echo through the next 2½ months.
The third-and-goal strategy designed by RichRod used a six-man front, with a tight end next to the tackle.
Wide receivers Tony Ellison and Cedric Peterson were split far to the right, in single coverage.
Ellison, inside, would cross paths with Peterson, and run to the perimeter, toward the corner of the end zone. Peterson would rub off of Ellison and hope that the Cougar defensive backs, Garrett Davis and Isaiah Johnson, would get caught in traffic, or worse, become confused by the crossing paths of Ellison and Peterson.
The play worked to perfection.
Davis and Johnson, a first-year cornerback converted from wide receiver, both chased Peterson toward the middle of the field.
No one covered Ellison.
Dawkins took the snap from center and quickly rolled right. He saw Ellison break free toward the end zone. His mind instantly registered one vibe: Touchdown.
Dawkins ran six quick steps and released the ball in about 2½ seconds. No Cougar defensive player had time to get near Dawkins nor obstruct his motion.
As Ellison crossed into the end zone, Davis, the man assigned to cover him, realized his mistake and turned, running toward Ellison. Too late; he was about 12 yards away. Both Ellison and Davis must’ve had the same one-word thought as Dawkins: Touchdown.
It would be Houston 19, Arizona 17. The final 16 minutes would be played to a different script. Most of the 15,000 or so who left Arizona Stadium early in the fourth quarter would’ve stayed in their seats and sung the praises of Dawkins.
As Dawkins released the ball, Ellison turned, positioning himself to catch the touchdown pass. But he immediately realized the ball would be high. He backpedaled for two steps and at the last moment jumped, arms fully extended.
The ball flicked off of the glove on Ellison’s right hand, incomplete. An audible groan shuddered through Arizona Stadium.
The entire two-play sequence had covered 31 seconds.
Dawkins walked immediately to the UA’s sideline and dropped to his knees. Three trainers attended to him.
Although he had not been touched on the third-down pass, he appeared to be in some discomfort from the previous play, on the jolting tackle by Adams.
The quarterback stood and walked with head trainer Randy Cohen to the bench, removed his helmet and began to gather himself. Houston ran eight plays and punted. There was a 2½ minute break to start the fourth quarter, and when Arizona regained possession, Dawkins re-entered the game, but the season-turning opportunity had passed.
The Wildcats had a three-and-out series as Dawkins’ final two passes were off-target. When the UA next gained possession, sophomore Khalil Tate played quarterback. Dawkins stood near the 50-yard line, helmet in hand, looking lost.
It had taken a mere 31 seconds for Arizona’s football program to take on the same appearance.