November 13, 2006

(at UA 24, Cal 20)
[hoops: at Virginia 93, UA 90]

Close game. Missed opportunities. Heartbreaking plays at the end. Tough loss.

Isn't it strange to be talking like that about the basketball team?

All week the optimists kept saying, "Just like last year!" Get a surprise win on the road then beat a top-ten team…at home…on national TV…on Homecoming…wearing red jerseys and blue pants. But get real. No possible way lightning strikes twice, right?


This was way better than the UCLA game. Last year we got on a huge roll early and they never had a chance. This year we had to earn it. We had to sweat it out, stare defeat in the face and rip away a victory. And we did it.

There were so many opportunities for the "same ol' Wildcats" to appear, so many chances to add more "Arizona plays" to the collection. Mike Thomas steps out of bounds at the five? Arizona play. Brandyn McCall drops a sure touchdown pass? Arizona play. Antoine Cason misses a tackle on an island in a four-point game? The Arizonaest of all Arizona plays.

But on this day, Arizona bounced back every single time. Thomas out at the five? Chris Henry runs it in on two plays. McOops? We score anyway. DeSean DeHero? After further review, Cason still stands.

Isn't it creepy how eerily similar this was to our loss at Cal in 1993? An 8-1 team with everything to play for loses on the road to an average team by the exact same 24-20 score. Yeah, Cal still controls its own destiny for the Rose Bowl, but it'll be pretty painful if they have to watch someone like Arkansas playing in the national championship game.

Considering how the Arizona and Cal football programs share a common bond of coming up short you'd think we'd just get out of each other's way. Instead we're like the modern-day Corsican Brothers who inflict the most pain by punching ourselves in face.

(Speaking of great pain, I told you Stanford was going to beat somebody. Be very glad it wasn't us.)

For the realist, the 2006 Homecoming game brought low expectations. After losing 66-0 to the Bears over the past two years, I'm surprised the fans didn't rush the field after our first field goal.

Cal got a 79-yard TD run called back by a penalty which led to a potential field goal attempt being called back by a penalty which led to replay taking away the penalty and giving Cal three points. And that was just the start of the weirdness.

After 21 minutes it was DeSean Jackson 14, Arizona 3. Does he have any brothers we can recruit? Cousins? Sisters-in-law even?

We fell behind 17-3 in the first half, converting only two of ten third downs. Heck, we still only had three points with six minutes left in the third quarter. How on earth did we win this game?

Coach Stoops showed his gambling side by going for it on fourth down twice, both times inside our own 30 no less. The first was the Devin Ross run on the fake punt, and the second was the very gutsy QB sneak on fourth and inches on our very first series of the second half. Neither drive resulted in points, but they sent the message to the team that keeping it close just wasn't going to be good enough.

The Mike Thomas of old (as in, you know, twelve months ago) is back. Adding to the Homecoming déjà vu we had Money running down the same sideline, diving toward the same pylon and stretching out the ball with the same left hand.

Progress: Willie Tuitama threw a pass out of bounds to avoid a sack! Need's improvement: Play clock awareness (all six timeouts were burned early) and game clock management. When we were trying to run out the clock in the fourth quarter Willie was breaking the huddle with 15 seconds left on the play clock and snapping the ball with eight or nine seconds left. I guess we'll just have to get more fourth quarter leads so he can get more practice.

The Brandyn McCall drop. I hate to bring it up again but, man, that was rough. A beautiful McPlay McCall on first down at midfield, a picture perfect throw, a wide-open field for the game-tying score, and…the Red Zone died (with video evidence on SportsCenter, including a guy in a sexy red hat).

That was just the start of one of the most beautifully bizarre sequences I've ever seen. On third and six from the Cal 46, Willie throws it to Earl Mitchell on the right sideline short of the first down. He immediately cuts it back toward the middle of the field and runs over like four guys to get past the marker. It was a play of much manliness.

Our friend Brandyn then blocks somebody in the back, putting us at first and 20 and punching his ticket out of town. But a run, a completion, and an interception-turned-holding-penalty later (on another pass intended for McCall of all people) and the Cats had first and ten at the 17.

Tuitama then throws his second interception on the drive only to have it again called back by a penalty (and the replay showed this one clearly fell into the "We'll take it" category). Henry runs in his fourth score of the month, Brandyn is the happiest guy in all the land, and we've got a tie ballgame.

I don't like to use this space to brag but…yeah, I do. Daymeion Hughes, you may win a ton of awards and go on to make a lot of money, but you have nothing on the 5-9 receiver in Tucson. Syndric Steptoe owns you. If the ball is in play, he makes the catch over you. If you touch him and intercept a pass in the end zone, it's a penalty on you. There is no use denying the truth. He is your daddy. You are Daymeion Syndricson.

Speaking of stellar defensive back play, that moment when the ball touched Antoine Cason's hands and he took his first step toward the end zone…that moment right there is why we do this. That's why the coaches coach, the players play, and the fans…uh…fan. It does not get any better for a sports fan than when your team makes that play.

(I apologize to the guys behind me for falling on you, and I thank you for pushing me back up.)

Of course, when Jackson broke free on the east sideline a short time later, it was one of those anti-moments for Wildcat fans. We had un-done it again. The scoreboard read Cal 26, Arizona 24. The place was dead silent.

Even with the play under review there was a feeling of dread. We only got to see one replay from a far-away angle and it didn't tell us a thing. But then the cell phones started ringing from the folks at home claiming, "ABC says he stepped out of bounds!" Was it true? And would the guys in the replay booth agree?

YES! There was conclusive video evidence that Arizona was still winning! That was the greatest 22-yard reception my team has ever given up.

This one is for the Sunny (and Ute) conspiracy theorists: The replay official who overturned Cal's game-winning touchdown? The one and only Jim Fogltance.

So here we are. Five and five. Exactly where I thought we'd be standing, only wrong about every step taken to get here. The last two wins have been just like last year. Now we have to change the story.

In 2005 we took the momentum of a small upset and turned it into a huge upset, and then we turned that into absolutely nothing. We ended the year on yet another losing streak and entered yet another long off-season of doubt.

We can't let it happen again. We gotta keep winning.

Yes, we're in a three-way tie for sixth place in the conference. Yes, the conference has six guaranteed bowl bids. But it's going to be very hard for us to get one.

There's bad news on the Race To Get Blown Out By Hawaii front. Because UCLA and ASU play each other next week, one of them will get a fourth conference win. If ASU beats UCLA and loses to us they'd still be slotted ahead of us if they're 7-5 and we're only 6-6. If UCLA beats ASU and loses to USC to finish 6-6, they'd have the tiebreaker over us by virtue of their head-to-head victory.

So in order to clinch a bowl bid we still need to beat Oregon and ASU. If we only win once more we're stuck in seventh place and hoping a random bowl with an open slot (the Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego on December 19 perhaps?) wants us. I guess we may as well keep winning.

As far as the basketball team, we'll talk about them some other time.

We've got a bowl bid to earn.

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