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Arizona football hangs with No. 7 Washington but can’t pull upset before Family Weekend sellout

arizona-wildcats-washington-huskies-football-final-score-recap-highlights-pac12-noah-fifita-2023 Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Faced with a monumental challenge on defense and with a brand new face running the offense, Arizona’s chances of pulling off the upset were very slim. It was more likely the Wildcats would get blown out by the seventh-ranked team in the country on Family Weekend.

The result ended up somewhere in the middle.

Arizona fell 31-24 to Washington on Saturday night before a sellout crowd. The loss snapped a 3-game home win streak, but it was an onside kick away from having a chance to tie it in the final minute.

The Wildcats (3-2, 1-1 Pac-12) were outgained 474-342 but held the Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. without a touchdown pass for the first time this season. Penix still threw for 363 yards on 30-of-40 passing, but the Huskies (5-0, 2-0) got all their TDs via four rushing scores of five or fewer yards.

Redshirt freshman Noah Fifita, making his first career start with Jayden de Laura sitting out due to an ankle injury, was 27 of 39 for 232 yards and three TDs (two to former high school teammate Tetairoa McMillan) and an interception. He was the first UA quarterback to make his starting debut against a Top 10 team since Richard Kovalcheck against Cal in 2004.

Arizona limited Washington to only three full first-half possessions, but the Huskies scored each time to lead 21-10 at the break. The Wildcats forced UW’s fourth 3-and-out of the season to open the second half but couldn’t take advantage, having to punt from near midfield after Fifita was sacked on third down.

The Huskies got back on track on their next drive, going up 28-10 on a 4-yard Dillon Johnson run with 6:43 left in the third. The drive was aided by Devin Culp’s 18-yard catch falling backwards on 3rd and 16 down to the UA 2.

Arizona’s best (and quickest) scoring drive followed, with Tetairoa McMillan catching a 1-yard TD pass with 3:03 to go in the third. Jonah Coleman’s 33-yard catch and run got the drive into UW territory after one play.

The UA held Washington to a rare non-TD in the red zone on the next drive, the Huskies going up 31-17 with 13:24 on a 38-yard field goal. UW had 1st and goal at the 5 but Penix was sacked for only the second time all year, had a TD pass broken up and then a screen on 3rd and long (after a holding penalty) resulted in a loss.

Fifita made his first real mistake on the ensuing drive, trying to force a shovel pass to Tanner McLachlan as he was getting pulled on from behind. The toss was picked off by Washington, which got inside the Arizona 10 again but came up empty after Dalton Johnson forced a fumble at the 3 and Tyler Manoa fell on it.

The Wildcats got inside UW territory after the takeaway and had 1st and 5 but ended up turning it over on downs with 4:26 remaining.

Washington decided to throw the ball after getting it back, going 3-and-out again after Penix was sacked for the second time in the game (and third all season). Arizona converted another fourth down on the ensuing possession, and with 1:08 to go McMillan caught his second TD pass on a 10-yard throw from Fifita.

Arizona’s onside kick attempt was nearly recovered, with Tyler Loop tapping it forward and Washington receiver Rome Odunze falling on the loose ball. The Huskies then ran out the clock by converting a 4th-and-1 with 10 seconds remaining.

Arizona’s first quarter offensive woes continued, with a 3-and-out followed by a 4-and-out, getting outgained 162-14 in the opening period. Washington, meanwhile, scored twice to lead 14-0 on a pair of short touchdown runs, the first capping a 12-play, 95-yard drive that took almost seven minutes.

And as it had been in every game this season, the Wildcats suddenly flipped an offensive switch when the second quarter began. The UA went 75 yards in 12 plays to cut it to 14-7 with 9:31 left before halftime on an 8-yard TD pass from Fifita to Jacob Cowing, a drive aided by Coleman blasting a 6-yard run on 4th-and-1 from the Arizona 34 and Fifita eluding a sack and scrambling in the red zone.

The Wildcats had chances to get the UW offense on the field on the next drive, forcing a 3rd and 14 deep in Huskies territory, but gave up a 15-yard reception. Later in the drive they forced a fumble but Treydan Stukes was ruled to have been out of bounds when recovering, and two plays later Washington made it 21-7 on a 5-yard run by Will Nixon.

Arizona cut it to 21-10 on a 30-yard field goal from Loop with 23 seconds before halftime.

The UA hits the road for its next two games, beginning with Oct. 7 at 8th-ranked USC. It will be a reunion with a trio of former starters now with the Trojans, who are 5-0 after a 48-41 win at Colorado on Saturday.