Some games don’t deserve to have a loser. This was one of them.
Arizona jumped out to a 17-0 lead on the road against a top-10 team only to fall behind in the second half, before rallying to force overtime and eventually falling 43-41 to USC in three OTs on Saturday night in Los Angeles.
The deciding plays were a pair of 2-point conversion attempts, all you can do after the second overtime, with reigning Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams squeaking in on a run for USC and then Arizona’s toss to DJ Williams getting swallowed behind the line of scrimmage.
Had the Wildcats (3-3, 1-2 Pac-12) converted that play it would have resulted in the first 4-OT game in school history. They had a chance to prevent the second and third extra periods but opted to kick the extra point after scoring a touchdown in the first OT and then having a potential game-winning 2-point pass to Jacob Cowing knocked away at the last second.
Cowing set a school record with four TD passes, including two in extra time, while redshirt freshman quarterback Noah Fifita threw for 303 yards and five TDs (with an interception) on 25-of-35 passing. Jonah Coleman added 143 rushing yards and 21 carries, both career highs, as Arizona outgained the top offense in the country 505-365.
Arizona held Caleb Williams to a season-low 219 passing yards and one TD but he ran for three scores (one in the first OT) as well as the game-winning 2-point play.
That there even was overtime was due to USC (6-0, 4-0) massively botching its final possession of regulation. Arizona had missed a 50-yard field goal from Tyler Loop with 2:08 left, and the Trojans got down to the UA 6 with less than a minute to go.
But USC for some reason threw on first down, then had a botched exchange on a handoff and had to fall on the ball with four seconds remaining to set up a chip-shot 25-yard field goal attempt. The snap on the kick as muffed and USC’s Denis Leary didn’t get the ball off the ground, sending the game to OT.
After Williams scored on an 18-yard run to start OT, Arizona needed one play—a 25-yard Cowing catch—to even the score. Jedd Fisch opted to kick the extra point, then in the second OT Cowing caught a 7-yard pass and was targeted on the 2-point try but USC safety Calen Bullock knocked it away.
Fisch initially sent the kicking team onto the field, apparently unaware of the OT rules. He said after the game he would have still kicked the PAT after the first overtime had he known 2-point conversions were required in the second.
The Trojans forced the third OT via an 11-yard TD run and a missed 2-point pass.
The UA led 17-14 at the half but was up 17-0 after less than 17 minutes. The Wildcats got the ball to start the third and quickly got into the red zone but stalled like it did on their opening drive of the game, settling for a 22-yard field goal from Loop to double the margin.
USC took its first lead on the following possession, going up 21-20 with 5:44 left in the third on an 11-yard run by Marshawn Lloyd. The score was aided by two big defensive penalties, a pass interference on Tacario Davis (guarding ex-Wildcat Dorian Singer) on 4th and 7 and a roughing the passer call against Justin Flowe that gave the Trojans 1st and goal.
Two more big defensive penalties aided USC’s scoring possession to go up 28-20 early in the fourth quarter. Genesis Smith was called for a face mask and Tyler Manoa illegal hands to the face, the latter coming on 3rd and goal to give the Trojans a redo that Williams turned into a 1-yard TD run on a second effort with Treydan Stukes draped over him.
USC looked like it had scored on a 9-yard TD catch on the final play of the third quarter but receiver Michael Jackson was ruled down inside the 1, allowing the Trojans to take another two-plus minutes off the clock.
Some big Coleman runs quickly got Arizona a 1st and goal inside the 5, but then the offense went backwards and the Wildcats had to go for it on 4th and goal. Fifita hung in as USC brought the house and found Cowing for a 3-yard TD catch, then connected with Tetairoa McMillan for the 2-point pass to knot it at 28 with 8:17 to go.
McMillan had six catches for 138 yards.
The UA forced USC to punt it away with under 6:30 left after Singer couldn’t hold onto a possible first down catch on 3rd and long, and the combo of Coleman and DJ Williams got Arizona inside the Trojans 40 with under three minutes left. But the drive stalled and Loop’s 50-yard field goal attempt sailed wide left with 2:08 left.
Arizona forced USC into a 3-and-out to start the game, the first time all season the Trojans didn’t score on their opening drive. The Wildcats put points on the board on their first possession, the first time they’d done that since the first drive of the season, but after having first and goal had to settle for a 23-yard Loop field goal.
Another Trojans 3-and-out—after a pass interference call on the first snap—set the stage for the UA taking a 2-score lead just over 10 minutes into the game. Fifita hit a wide-open Cowing for a 23-yard TD pass a few plays after Coleman converted on 4th-and-1 just past midfield.
Following a third straight punt, and a penalty on the return, Arizona went 92 yards to go up 17-0 with 13:05 left in the first half on an 18-yard TD catch by Tanner McLachlan. Along the way Fifita hit T-Mac for 39 yards on a flea flicker.
Arizona’s offense sputtered the rest of the half, gaining only 12 yards on three drives, and the first of those ended with a mistake by Fifita that turned the game’s momentum.
Fifita telegraphed a pass on an out route that was picked off by Trojans corner Jacob Covington, who returned it to the Wildcats’ 12. A few plays later, Williams scrambled and scored on a 4-yard run to cut the margin to 17-7 with 9:43 left in the half.
USC got within 17-14 on a 5-yard TD pass from Williams to Kyron Hudson with two seconds left in the half, a play Arizona challenged but review upheld.
Arizona stays on the road next weekend, visiting No. 13 Washington State on Oct. 14. The Cougars (4-1, 1-1) fell 25-17 at UCLA on Saturday.