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Arizona football: Competitive Wildcats must prove themselves again in Washington

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 14 USC at Arizona Photo by Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Losses are not supposed to leave you feeling good, but the aftermath of Arizona’s season-opening 34-30 defeat at the hands of the USC Trojans has done exactly that.

Such is life when the program was predicted to be among the very worst in the conference after losing its final seven games of the previous season by an average of nearly three touchdowns per contest.

Even the most optimistic of Wildcats fans did not expect the team to really compete against the more-talented Trojans, and even those with the most belief in the team likely did not expect to see them have a late lead and chance to pull off the upset.

One could even say Arizona should have won, which to be honest has become quite the foreign concept.

Of course, the Wildcats did not win the game. They are 0-1 with, if they’re lucky, five more Pac-12 games left to play. The first one wasn’t bad; the next five, starting with Saturday’s tilt at Washington, must follow suit.

We must remember that Arizona has looked pretty good before. Last season the team reeled off four straight wins following a close Week 0 loss at Hawaii, only to then have the wheels fall off.

In other words, even in a loss what Arizona did against USC won’t mean much if it cannot be built upon. The good news is that for the most part, what the Wildcats did against the Trojans is repeatable.

It helped that USC made unforced errors like silly penalties and missing a field goal, but what the Wildcats did in moving the ball fairly easily and putting up a fight on defense can be expected every game.

Does anyone think Grant Gunnell throwing for 286 yards and three touchdowns was an anomaly? His running may have been a surprise, but his high school stats show a guy who can — and will — run when the opportunity is there.

Of course, Gary Brightwell rushing for 112 yards on 21 carries was no shock, either. The offensive line did a solid job in all aspects and the offense should get a boost with the returns of receivers Brian Casteel and Drew Dixon, both of whom may have made life easier last week.

The defense certainly wore down over the course of the game and finished by allowing nearly 500 yards, but they never truly seemed overmatched until the final drive, when evidently injuries decimated the secondary.

Otherwise the line, led by transfers Aaron Blackwell and Roy Lopez, played well, and the linebackers were solid with Jalen Harris, Anthony Pandy and Rourke Freeburg all putting together quality performances.

The secondary held up fairly well against some elite receivers, with Christian Roland-Wallace being painfully close to a couple of interceptions.

All of that can be done again, and in fact there’s little reason to think it won’t. Unfortunately, when it comes to the defense wearing down and being thinned by injury, those issues will remain throughout this season.

For one game, though, Arizona had enough to compete with a ranked team. USC did not need to play a perfect game to beat the Wildcats, but the Wildcats — based on their talent and their flaws — will need to play nearly perfect to beat a team like USC.

There are no more teams like USC left on the schedule.

The next opponent, Washington, was hardly impressive in a win over Oregon State last weekend and is no sure thing. Every game after this weekend Arizona will likely see itself either be favored to win or at least not a double-digit underdog.

That assumes, of course, that the performance against USC was no fluke.

Arizona did not win last week and they are not likely to win this week, either. The team has taken the right approach in not celebrating competitiveness, but the rest of us are free to acknowledge that for a program in seeming disarray, moral victories are notable.

But since they do nothing for the win column, their impact can be lost the very next game. Conversely, they morph into something greater with a win.

If Arizona can beat Washington, great. It would validate what happened against USC and provide more evidence that the program is at least in the process of turning the corner.

If the Wildcats play well in another loss, fine. They are double-digit dogs for a reason and it’s never easy winning on the road, fans or not.

If they more closely resemble the team that finished 2019 than the one that started 2020, well, that would be bad. All the goodwill gained last week would be lost and even though the schedule softens from there, there’d be less reason to believe anything good will come over the ensuing contests.

Saturday’s matchup with Washington is only one game over the course of what is and will continue to be a strange season. No games are guaranteed, which makes each one that happens that much more valuable.

The first one for Arizona wasn’t perfect, but it was entertaining and had people feeling better about the program. A repeat performance, perhaps this time with a win, would cement those positive vibes.