Ideally, the Arizona Wildcats beat the USC Trojans and quarterback B.J. Denker plays well. The Wildcats would have taken a win without the latter. Instead, Arizona left Los Angeles on Thursday with the most promising evidence that Denker could be serviceable, but it did so with a 38-31 loss because nothing else went right.
Denker completed 28-of-44 passes for 362 yards, four touchdowns and without a turnover.
Inopportune third-down mistakes and blown coverages downfield defined the first half for Arizona. And forget about the Wildcat cornerbacks having the speed to stick with a Trojans receiving corps without Marqise Lee and without much depth at all -- UA dropped their corners so far off USC receivers it then became a wonder if they were within 10 yards to tackle them at the end of their routes.
Trailing USC 31-10, Arizona used a 39-yard rush from Ka'Deem Carey to set up a 45-yard pass from Denker to Garic Wharton -- like many of his longballs, it was of the floating, frightening variety. UA was within 31-17.
As usual, the Wildcats continued to go to Carey -- maybe not enough on just 21 carries for 138 yards -- but the Trojans tacked on another touchdown as they went to the running game to wind the clock. Yet Denker led a valiant charge in the fourth to bring Arizona within a touchdown, 38-31.
The criticized UA quarterback hit 8-of-11 pass attempts on a 17-play, 96-yard drive to bring UA within two scores, then finished off a 42-yard drive with a pretty 28-yard touchdown pass to Wharton to put fear into the Trojans. But USC's run game wore down UA's defense to close out the game. The Trojans ended with 251 rush yards to batter Arizona down.
USC built a 14-0 lead before the first quarter was over thanks to 62-yard and 63-yard touchdown passes by quarterback Cody Kessler.
An 89-yard drive by Arizona ended with a third-and-goal at the 5-yard line and a pass by Denker that was dropped in the end zone. The Wildcats settled for a field goal. UA's defense continued to miss tackles, and USC added two more scores to take a 28-3 lead late in the second quarter.
Denker hit three completions starting at UA's own 25-yard line late in the second quarter, then found Nate Phillips for a 57-yard score minutes before halftime. Arizona's much-maligned signal-caller completed 16-of-21 passes for 208 yards and a touchdown in the first half, after which Arizona trailed 28-10.
The numbers were better than Kessler's, but of course the context was that Kessler made all the big plays.
For much of the second half, it didn't get much better for the Wildcats. When Denker was off, he was off. When he was on, his teammates missed blocks, lost the ball or missed the play-call. And like last year against the Trojans, the defense couldn't handle the physical running style of USC, and it couldn't even beat the bigger, bruising backs to the corners.
In the end, the Wildcats will head back to Tucson with their heads held high but with mistakes defining their play.
Denker did more than hold off the calls for his head. His second half surely gave Rich Rodriguez more reason to stick with him. Oddly enough, a game that appeared to be a loss in two ways -- in the win column and in the sense that Arizona could use a loss to find a new quarterback -- is a promising sign it wasn't until Thursday that we saw the best of B.J. Denker.
At the least, he teased everyone with hope.