Matt Scott grimaced in a moment better suited to exuberance. His touchdown pass to Austin Hill midway through the fourth quarter put Arizona ahead of visiting Oregon State, 35-31, putting the Wildcats in position to knock off its second top 25 ranked visitor to Arizona Stadium this season.
But his grimace foreshadowed the final outcome. Scott limped to the sideline and watched as Sean Mannion marched Oregon State down the field to regain the lead for the fourth and final time. The Wildcat defense looked a step slower than the Beavers on the final possession. Mannion exploited gaps in the secondary to cross OSU over the goal line for a fifth occasion.
UA was exhibiting the effects of a problem anyone following the program knew could vex the Wildcats, but one Rich Rodriguez and staff would be powerless to stop. The Wildcats have depth issues that prove insurmountable against quality opponents.
It's not an excuse, merely a simple reality. Every football team must address injuries at some point, but inexperience renders UA's margin for error especially small -- particularly when facing a quarterback as effective as Mannion and team as savvy as Oregon State.
Rodriguez and Jeff Casteel were already forced to get creative crafting a starting defensive lineup. H-back Taimi Tutogi has seen more action at defensive end, and walk-ons like Jared Tevis are in starting roles. Tevis has emerged as one of arguably the two most significant contributors, but Saturday night suffered a first half injury initially rumored to be a broken leg.
Anthony Gimino notes Tevis tweeted it's in fact a bad sprain, a much better long-term diagnosis but one immediately plaguing the depleted secondary. Washington proved the importance of stingy play against the pass in defeating UA's next opponent, Stanford, and the Wildcats' loss demonstrates what can happen when it's missing.
The Beavers are where the Wildcats want to be, parlaying the experience gained via a losing campaign in 2011 into contention in 2012. Eyes were similarly focused on the future for UA entering this season, but a 3-0 start altered expectations. Moreover, the outstanding play of Scott suggests this group of Wildcats can reach a bowl game. Even through injury on Saturday, he threw for a career high 403 yards.
That means the maturation process has to come a lot faster for those thrust into unexpected roles, like converted wide receiver Patrick Onwuasor. Only then can grimaces turn into fist pumps.