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Loss at Mississippi State showed both Arizona’s progress and how hard it is to get over the hump

arizona-wildcats-football-mississippi-state-bulldogs-recap-analysis-commentary-overtime-delaura Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

Saturday night in Starkville Arizona showed it was capable of beating pretty much anyone, including itself.

Although not expected to win the game against a more seasoned SEC foe, one could make the case that if not for their five turnovers the Cats not only would have pulled off the upset, but perhaps done so rather comfortably.

But alas, their statement win was put on hold due to an interception, an interception, an interception, a fumble and an interception.

Of course it is virtually impossible to win a game—especially on the road—when you turn the ball over five times and finish minus-4 in that department. And yet, there Arizona was with a chance late in the fourth quarter to take the lead and, after getting the field goal to send it to overtime, got off to a great start defensively before things ultimately unraveled.

The final result was a 31-24 loss that could have easily been a win. Or, just as easily, it could have been a blowout similar to last year’s game with Mississippi State. On this night all options were on the table.

After the game was over, when upon review the officials determined Jayden de Laura’s desperation scramble came up painfully short of a first down, none of what could have happened mattered. Nor did the fact that Arizona had seven more first downs than Mississippi State, 124 more total yards, fewer penalties, twice as many sacks and, really, an advantage in most statistical categories.

The only thing that mattered on this night was that Arizona lost the game, in large part because of itself.

No one ever said progress happened in a straight line or was without its frustrating speed bumps. But if someone had told you the Cats would have taken the Bulldogs to overtime and fallen short you probably would have been OK with the result given where the program is in its rebuild and with the expectations for this season. You likely would have felt that result came from Arizona going on the road and playing well, falling just short against a bigger, more athletic SEC foe.

It happens, right?

Yes, but that’s not at all what happened Saturday.

In playing poorly (especially offensively) and still having a legitimate chance to win the Cats showed just how improved they are from previous seasons. It would have been easy for the defense to quit as the offense kept giving the ball back, but it didn’t. It would have been easy for the offense — especially its QB — to start panicking and make a bad situation worse. It and he didn’t.

Arizona played a bad game, especially offensively, and still had a chance to win.

“So you got guys that are just battling and making plays,” head coach Jedd Fisch said after the game. “This is a team that’s very resilient. We expected to win this game. We came in here expecting to win this game. We did not come in here scared. We did not come here concerned.

“We thought we were bringing a really good team.”

They weren’t. Really good teams don’t make mistakes and make the big plays late to win. They don’t throw a key interception in opposing territory with less than five minutes remaining while driving to take the lead. Really good teams don’t miss a tackle that instead of forcing a 3rd-and-long to start OT instead led to a 29-yard touchdown. Really good teams don’t misfire on a simple out route when the receiver was wide open while trying to answer in OT.

Despite all that went wrong for Arizona, and all the Cats did to claw back into the game and give themselves a chance to win, when plays were there to be made they too often didn’t make them.

Really good teams make those plays.

Good teams have a chance to make those plays, and that’s what Arizona is showing itself to be. The jump from good to really good is a difficult one. It requires playing clean football and, occasionally, getting some favorable bounces.

Fortunately for Arizona there are still at least 10 games left to prove it can make the leap from good to really good. They may not face a defense as tough as the one they just played, and they will likely benefit from having played and competed in such a difficult environment.

And despite the disappointment of this week’s loss, it really won’t do much to hinder the team’s season-long goals. Arizona was not going undefeated, but the idea of being competitive within the conference and reaching a bowl game for the first time since 2017 is still very much on the table.

Encouragingly, they are good enough to say whether they accomplish that feat is entirely up to them.