TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — Arizona scored a late touchdown, recovered an onside kick and moved into position for an improbable last-second victory.
The script was essentially the same as when the Wildcats rallied to beat California three weeks earlier.
The only part missing was the ending.
Jared Baker scored his third touchdown with 1:07 left and Arizona recovered an onside kick, but Casey Skowron’s 36-yard attempt sailed wide right to send the 10th-ranked Wildcats to a 28-26 loss to Southern California on Saturday night.
“Losing on a last-second play, it’s not easy,” Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said. “I’m proud of the guys the way they played hard and competed.”
USC (4-2, 3-1 Pac-12) left the Coliseum defeated and deflated a week ago after losing to Arizona State on a Hail Mary.
Despite Javorius Allen running for 205 yards and three touchdowns, the Trojans appeared to be headed toward another disheartening loss after Baker scored on a 1-yard run and Caleb Jones recovered the onside kick following a failed 2-point conversion try.
With the crowd roaring for another improbable victory by Arizona, the Wildcats came up short when Skowron missed his third field goal of the night with 17 seconds left.
A seven-day emotional roller coaster over, the Trojans now find themselves atop the jumbled Pac-12 South.
“I never thought it was over; last game showed that,” USC defensive end Leonard Williams said. “We learned that we had to play every second of the game.”
Especially against the Wildcats.
Arizona (5-1, 2-1) struggled with red-zone issues in the first half and didn’t have much of a run game with leading rusher Nick Wilson out and Terris Jones-Grigsby going down late in the first half.
But, like they had so many times, the Wildcats came roaring back.
Baker scored all three of his touchdowns in the second half and Anu Solomon had another big night, throwing for 395 yards and a touchdown on 43-of-72 passing.
The Wildcats put themselves in position to tie after Baker’s 1-yard run, but he was stuffed by Williams on the 2-point try.
They had a chance to win after Jones recovered the onside kick, but Skowron couldn’t come through.
“Kickers tend to feel all the weight is on them when he should have never been in that situation in the first place,” Arizona receiver Austin Hill said. “He needs to realize more of the weight is on the rest of the team.”
It’s been an emotional couple of weeks for Arizona. The Wildcats rallied to beat California on a Hail Mary on Sept. 20 and knocked off then-No. 2 Oregon on the road last week.
The win over the Ducks vaulted the Wildcats from out of The Associated Press poll to No. 10 this week, the largest jump since the poll went to 25 teams in 1989.
Arizona’s task was to avoid a letdown against the Trojans, who rode into the desert with a different set of emotions after Arizona State’s Hail Mary.
Oddsmakers predicated a Wildcats’ hangover, installing them as 2 1/2-point underdogs despite being undefeated and playing at home.
The Trojans played like favorites from the start, moving the ball successfully against an Arizona defense that contained the Ducks a week ago, particularly when they gave the ball to Allen.
The junior running back turned an inside handoff into a 34-yard touchdown run by bouncing it outside in the first quarter, then burst through a hole for a 48-yard score in the second.
“He was tough to bring down,” Arizona safety Jared Tevis said. “A couple of times, guys were trying to strip the ball out before even securing the tackle and that’s where they got a couple of big runs.”
Gaining yards was not a problem for Arizona.
Scoring touchdowns was.
The Wildcats crossed USC’s 20 four times in the first half and came away with six points.
Skowron made two field goals, missed one and had another blocked. Arizona also lost a fumble late in the half, when Williams crushed Jones-Grigsby at the 7-yard line to pop the ball loose.
USC led 14-6 at halftime in a game that was more defensive than anticipated.
Once the second half started, so did the offensive fireworks.
Kessler found Nelson Agholor on a 21-yard touchdown pass and Allen scored his third touchdown on a 1-yard run, putting the Trojans up 28-13.
Arizona finally the end zone in the third quarter, when Baker scored on a 6-yard run, four plays after the Wildcats recovered Justin Davis’ fumble at USC’s 22.
Baker scored again early in the fourth quarter, turning a fourth-and-3 into a 41-yard touchdown reception out of the backfield that cut USC’s lead to 28-20.
Just like in the California game, Arizona failed on 2-point conversion, but recovered an onside kick to get into position for a last-second win.
This time, the Wildcats came up short — or, wide right.
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