Arizona Football

Showing great effort, Arizona was close, … but

Ninety-four seconds … Arizona was that close.

A possible interception with just under a minute – the Wildcats were that close.

That close was exactly where Arizona was. Maybe that’s a good thing – even in a loss.

A surprising effort against one of 2020’s top college teams – what does that mean in the year 2020? – was what Arizona did get against the visiting Trojans in a better-than-expected 34-30 loss on Saturday night.

“Obviously, we’re disappointed,” said UA quarterback Grant Gunnell. “There’s definitely disappointment that comes with a loss, but everyone was saying we were the underdog, literally everyone. We already got rid of that disappointment. We’re optimistic and we’re driven right now.”

Arizona’s Tayvian Cunningham eludes USC’s Greg Johnson at Arizona Stadium (Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics)

How could it not be? Arizona just went toe to toe with the No. 20 USC and had it beat. Had them. In fact, had a lead twice in the fourth quarter, only to see it taken away both times.

Again, that close.

“We’re optimistic,” he said. “We want to win games here. We’re not settling for a losing effort. We’re tired of losing. We’re going to bring some wins.”

It would have happened Saturday in front of about 500 cardboard cutouts and another 200-300 or so fans. Instead, Arizona got 2020ed in the end.

The bitter end.

All Arizona needed was a stop. Some way, somehow after UA took a 30-27 lead with about 94 seconds left in the game.

Had it happened it would have pulled off one of the more significant upsets in Kevin Sumlin’s two-plus years at Arizona and perhaps of the last decade in Arizona football. Arizona went in a 14-point underdog, after all.

Arizona did everything it could win the game … it just didn’t. And the game where success is measured by wins and losses, Arizona played well, but lost.

“I don’t know that we proved anything,” Sumlin said. “I think that you either win or lose. But I thought we had some experienced guys that we expected to play well. We had some, obviously, some newcomers, whether they were transfers or young guys, that the played well, but not well enough to win and that’s the bottom line.”

As he told his team in the postgame locker room, he loved their effort. And that it played well on offense, defense and the kicking game.

Still it wasn’t good enough. But still promising for a team that was picked to finish last in the Pac-12 South.

It does beg the question: Is Arizona better than what many thought it would be or is USC just overrated, given it had to pull out some late-game magic the last two weekends?

Maybe a combination of each. At the end of a picturesque football day USC won and Arizona lost.

“We gotta to go back on Monday and fix those things,” Sumlin said. “And those things are fixable, but athletically we’re better and I thought our guys gave effort. We gotta be smarter in some situations and to get over the hump because ultimately in those kind of close games, it comes down to making plays and doing your job and we have a couple breakdowns in that area, but that can be fixed.”

What that does is give Arizona hope. But that’s what Saturday did.

Arizona offense looked sharp behind Gunnell, save for his first interception on play three of the game. He passed for 286 yards and ran for another 40. USC seeming had no answer for Gunnell when he ran (until they put a spy on him in the second half). Gary Brightwell was short of amazing when he ran the ball. He finished with 112 yards and 21 carries. Gunnell spread the ball around via the air, hitting eight different receivers.

But the offense has never been the concern. It’s always been the defense. Did you think going in Arizona had a chance with a defense that saw key defections over the last few months? How was that makeshift lineup going to work? But it did – until the end.

“Well, we were down a couple safeties,” said Sumlin speaking about his defense at the end when USC went 75 yards for the winning drive that took one minute. “We had some mix-ups there, just because, number one, Jaxen Turner had left the game a couple of times and was out. Our safeties, we’re thin there anyway and we had a couple DBs that were out. So the ability to play man to man or a little tighter coverage right there with our second or thirds and some multiple deals with nickel (defense), we were a little bit out of that. So that was the position we were in and obviously USC took advantage of that.”

Still, Arizona looked good more times than it didn’t – and that’s something to cheer about, especially in 2020.

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