Cats relevant, and the race is on

CATS RELEVANT, AND THE RACE IS ON

UCLA quarter Brett Hundley was heavily recruited across the Pac-12, including the Arizona Wildcats.

When the Wildcat offense couldn’t convert on another of their many failed third down attempts while trailing USC 28-13 midway through the third quarter on Saturday, a man, his wife, and their three children stood up and started to shuffle by me on their way to the exit tunnel.

I asked the wife as she passed, “Calling it a day?”

She nodded and replied, “I’m tired of this; I want to go home, have a beer, and watch the rest on TV.”

The husband passed me next, and as he did, I shook his hand and told him, “Well, I hope you all regret missing the rest of this one.”

He agreed, though judging by his expressionless countenance, it was clear he thought Arizona had no chance to tilt the scales back in their direction, having been outscored 28-3 over the prior 20 minutes. And so off they went, five more Wildcat supporters who had given up, hung their heads, and could no longer bear to stand witness to a saddening show they’d seen too many times before.

Roughly an hour later, however, the woman got to enjoy her cold one in celebration.

That’s because the Wildcats did something they’ve rarely done in their history: rally from a large deficit late, and still hang on to win. Getting the final stop, of course, didn’t come easy, and in fact, it was fingertips away from becoming yet another UA heartbreaker.

When Trojans quarterback Matt Barkley’s Hail Mary bomb floated in slow motion toward the back right corner of the north end zone, Arizona Stadium held its collective breath, knowing the Cats had a real chance to see their tenuous three-point advantage swing to a three-point deficit on the game’s final play.

Arizona quarterback Matt Scott is no stranger to winning in the Rose Bowl, leading the Cats past the Bruins 29-21 in 2010.

But SC wideout Marqise Lee, who – with 345 yards and two touchdowns on the day, had one of the most brilliant all-time receiving performances in college football history – missed two last-gasp chances to catch the desperation heave in the middle of a sea of white, gold, and two shades of red, the stadium exploded with the sweetest sounds of exaltation and relief that had been heard there in a long time.

Sure, USC clearly isn’t worthy of its No. 1 preseason ranking, nor the top 10 status it carried into the game at 6-1, but it’s still a very good football team, the type that Arizona loses to more often than not in the past decade-plus, with a history of dominance over the team from Tucson. And so, clearing that particular hurdle created a unique, euphoric emotion, and a sense that perhaps more special moments are soon to be enjoyed in the Old Pueblo.

The value of the victory paid immediate dividends for the UA as well, as the Cats now find themselves ranked 22nd in the BCS, the lone three-loss team in the polls, and now sit in solid position to make a run at the Pac-12 South division title.

Wild, isn’t it?

Following UCLA’s last-second field goal victory over Arizona State last week, Arizona now rests just a game behind the Bruins and Sun Devils, teams the Wildcats will face during the coming four weekends. USC still holds a half-game lead over those squads, but the general belief is the Trojans will suffer their third conference loss at the hands of undefeated Oregon on Saturday.

Should that occur, the formula becomes simple: if the Cats win out, they’ll play for the Pac-12 championship on Nov. 30.

That journey starts on Saturday in Pasadena, where the stakes are suddenly higher than conventional wisdom would have suggested before the 2012 season began.

The Bruins (6-2, 3-2 Pac-12) under the guidance of first year coach Jim Mora, will take the field for their homecoming game fully aware that a victory will likely vault them into first place in the South. Similarly, Rich Rodriguez and his club, resurgent and relevant once again following their big win a week ago, will trot onto the Rose Bowl turf focused on playing downhill against a remaining schedule that presents fewer daunting tests and more opportunities for success.

UCLA’s marquee win of the season came in week two against current No. 20 Nebraska, but the Bruins also suffered a mysterious 43-17 shellacking by the 3-6 Cal Bears four weeks ago. The Wildcats have no such mystery in their losses; Oregon, Oregon State, and Stanford are a combined 20-3. So if their opponents are a measuring stick, Arizona would appear to have a slight leg up, having faced one of the toughest schedules in the nation, and having success in triumphs over top 20 teams Oklahoma State and USC.

Quarterback play will be a critical factor in Saturday’s contest, with the spotlight on the Bruins’ redshirt freshman phenom Brett Hundley, a Chandler, AZ product who has guided a well-balanced attack for the Bruins in 2012.

Hundley has thrown for 18 touchdowns thus far, and though he’s tossed eight interceptions, half of those came in one afternoon – the Bruins’ dismal showing in Berkeley. He has also rushed for 33 yards a game, supporting an offensive attack that feeds first off senior tailback Jonathan Franklin, who has already surpassed the 1,000 yard mark this fall.

But still, Hundley will have to shine with his arm in critical moments on Saturday, especially when UA coordinator Jeff Casteel’s odd-stack defense forces him to make big throws on third and long.

His counterpart, Arizona’s Matt Scott, has already proven he’s for real in 2012, as he leads the Pac-12 in total offense at almost 400 yards per game. However, Scott hasn’t won a road game as a starter since the last time he faced the Bruins in Pasadena, in 2010, when he was filling in for an injured Nick Foles.

Further, the senior from Corona, Calif. may be lucky to be playing this week, as he looked to have suffered a concussion late in the fourth quarter against USC. If he’s rattled at all, either from the after-effects of having his bell rung (tests later showed Scott did not have a concussion), or from what will likely be the largest home crowd for the Bruins so far, a few critical mistakes could cost the Wildcats – who must rely on their offense to win them games – dearly in the end. It’s difficult to presume that will happen, however, given the way Scott has performed since his humbling night in Eugene seven weeks ago.

Both teams boast premier tailbacks and Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey now trails Franklin by just 81 yards for the conference lead, with 961. Neither team has done much to stop the run, so each player will certainly have their chances to break a few game changing plays for his team.

When the final moments tick away however, as with a week ago, the better-tested team is likely to prevail.

Arizona rained on the Bruins’ homecoming parade almost two years ago to the day, and unless Mora’s men can figure out how to do what only Oregon has been able to so far in 2012 – stop Scott and the Wildcats offense time and again – there’s not much they’ll be able to do to come out on top Saturday night.

Similar to their coup in Tucson last week, the UA builds a firm lead behind its senior captain and holds on late – though perhaps not so narrowly this time around.

Arizona 35, UCLA 29, as the Wildcats improve to 6-3 overall and return for their own homecoming event next weekend against Colorado.

Follow me on Twitter @EricWKay

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