The Arizona Wildcats waited nearly a year to finally get back on the field. That their first game ended in heartbreak was only fitting for 2020.
Vavae Malepeai scored on an 8-yard run with 25 seconds left, giving the 20th-ranked USC Trojans a 33-30 win on Saturday afternoon before an intimate friends-and-family crowd at Arizona Stadium.
Arizona had taken a 27-23 lead with 1:35 to go on a 6-yard TD catch pass from Grant Gunnell to Stanley Berryhill III, but then its defense—which had played so well for nearly the entire game—couldn’t make a stop when it needed one most. The Trojans went 75 yards in six plays, a pass that was nearly intercepted by Christian Roland-Wallace only to be tipped to USC receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown at the 8-yard line, setting up the game-winning score on the ensuing play.
It was the eighth consecutive loss for Arizona, which dropped the final seven games of the 2019 season, and marks the third straight year the Wildcats have started 0-1. That’s the first time that’s happened in school history.
Gunnell threw for 286 yards and three touchdowns with an interception on 24-of-36 passing, adding a career-best 40 rushing yards, while Gary Brightwell ran for 112 yards and Tayvian Cunningham had five receptions for 110 yards and a 75-yard TD catch.
USC, which beat ASU 28-27 at home last week in the final minutes, got 325 passing yards from Kedon Slovis. The Trojans outgained Arizona 498-444.
Arizona trailed 17-13 at the half, falling behind by seven with 9:57 left in the third on a 28-yard field goal by USC’s Parker Lewis. It could have been worse, though, as a 48-yard catch by St. Brown got the Trojans to the UA 10 only to see the Wildcat defense step up and force the kick.
Twelve seconds later, the game was tied at 20 after Gunnel went up top to Cunningham and the speedy senior—whose plans to run track for Arizona last spring were scrapped by the pandemic—got behind his man for a 75-yard TD catch with 9:45 remaining in the third.
USC almost instantly got back into the Arizona red zone, getting down to the 1-yard line on third-and-goal, only to commit a false start and delay of game before Anthony Pandy forced Slovis to throw it away. A 28-yard attempt by Lewis was no good, keeping it tied at 20 with 5:06 left in the third.
The Trojans made their sixth trip to the Arizona red zone late in the third quarter but were stopped on 4th and inches inside the 3-yard line. Walk-on linebacker Rourke Freeburg made the big stop, tackling Markese Stepp behind the line of scrimmage.
Arizona took its first lead at 23-20 with 7:49 to go on a 51-yard field goal from Lucas Havrisik, his career-best third of the game.
USC went back up 27-23 with 3:30 remaining on a 5-yard TD catch by Erik Krommenhoek, though it took the Trojans three tries from the UA 5-yard line to get in. The drive was aided by some shoddy UA tackling, including a whiff by Pandy on a short pass to the sidelines that resulted in a 16-yard gain.
Arizona’s final lead came on an 8-play, 65-yard drive in which Gunnell was 5 for 7 for 45 yards, with Berryhill catching four of his team-best eight receptions.
Gunnell was picked off on Arizona’s third play of the game, overthrowing Jamarye Joiner on third and long. USC’s Talanoa Hufanga returned the interception to the UA 17, and six plays later Stepp scored on a 1-yard run for a 7-0 Trojans lead just 2:24 into the game.
The first-game jitters out of the way, Gunnell looked far more poised on Arizona’s second drive. He completed five of six passes for 59 yards, including a 34-yard catch-and-run by Joiner to tie it at 7 with 8:50 left in the first quarter, and along the way scrambled for 11 yards on 3rd and 7 near midfield to keep the drive going.
USC took a 10-7 lead with 2:04 left in the first on a 30-yard Lewis field goal. The Wildcats stopped the Trojans on 3rd and short outside the 10, but earlier in the drive were called for holding on 3rd and 10 and pass interference—on what looked like an uncatchable ball—on 3rd and 28.
Arizona had a chance to tie it at 10 early in the second quarter, but Havrisik’s 42-yard field goal attempt sailed wide left. He got a second chance with 5:07 left in the first half, connecting on a 25-yard kick to knot the score at 10, though those points felt like a letdown after the Wildcats marched from their own 4 to inside the USC 10 thanks to two big plays from Brightwell—a 34-yard run and a 15-yard catch on 3rd and 15—and some Gunnell scrambling.
USC retook the lead at 17-10 with 2:33 left before halftime on a 3-yard Stephen Carr run. The Trojans moved the ball with ease on that drive, though they were aided by a pass interference penalty along the way, gaining 48 yards on the ground after managing only 19 on their first three drives.
Another long UA drive just before halftime fizzled in the red zone, with Havrisik hitting a 32-yard field goal with 12 seconds left to make it 17-13.
The Wildcats will look to get into the win column next Saturday at Washington, the first of two straight road games.