LOS ANGELES - Junior tight end Brad Wood played an integral part in the dogfight between the Arizona football team and No. 1 Southern California Saturday, catching four passes for 59 yards and his fifth touchdown of the season.
Despite playing within a touchdown of the two-time defending national champion Trojans for over three quarters, the look on Wood's face as he emerged from the locker room in Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum said it all - nothing less than a win would do.
"We're tired of moral victories," said Wood, a product of Tucson's Sabino High School.
Arizona has seen its share of near misses in the last 13 months. Already in 2005, the Wildcats have hung with USC, lost to then-No. 11 Purdue by a touchdown and dropped a three-point decision to Utah in Salt Lake City.
A season ago, Arizona dropped three consecutive heartbreakers to Utah, Wisconsin and Washington State by a combined total of 24 points, with wins just slipping through its fingers.
It's a dramatic turnaround for a program that in 2003 finished 2-10 and lost by an average of 22.3 points per game.
But close calls are not what this version of Arizona football says it's striving for.
"Our team is looking to get better, and we're not going to get any better unless we start getting wins," Wood said. "We want victories ... and that's what we want to produce for us and our fans."
Arizona continually climbed within a touchdown of USC for nearly 50 minutes Saturday, against a team many football experts predicted would beat the Wildcats by no fewer than five touchdowns.
Many times on the afternoon, the Wildcats looked capable of doing the unthinkable - ending USC's 26-game win streak.
"It's nothing you want to feel, coming in here, hanging with the No. 1 team in the nation and getting knocked off," said senior safety Darrell Brooks.
Arizona head coach Mike Stoops said that he wouldn't feel any better after Saturday's game compared to other losses.
"No," he said. "I'll still have a big headache."
A major headache for Stoops on the afternoon was USC's running game.
The Trojan tailback tandem of juniors Reggie Bush and LenDale White rushed for a combined 287 yards, with White reaching the end zone four times.
Facing a duo like Bush and White, who have each hit the century mark in rushing the last three games, is a tall order for an Arizona defense that has been hit hard by injuries.
"We're playing a lot of young people before their time, and they have to grow up fast," Stoops said.
Among the Arizona upperclassmen who have been sidelined at various times this season are linebackers Spencer Larsen and Randy Sims, offensive lineman Brad Brittain, and defensive ends Copeland Bryan and Marcus Smith.
Younger players like Mike Shelton, Joe Longacre and Jason Parker have filled those holes during a stretch few would argue is the team's toughest of the season.
"We've played a very tough, very physical schedule," Stoops said.
In its first five outings, Arizona has faced two teams that qualified for the Bowl Championship Series in 2004 (Utah, USC) and three teams ranked No. 11 or better the weekend it faced Arizona (Purdue, Cal, USC).
In addition, the Wildcat defense has taken on three of the top 10 statistically ranked rushers in the nation: USC's Bush (fourth) and White (10th) and California's Justin Forsett (ninth).
It's tests like these, sophomore cornerback Antoine Cason said, that will benefit the Wildcats' gasping bowl game aspirations.
"Those are pretty much the best backs in the Pac-10," he said. "Everybody's good, but ... going against those guys, you feel you can compete with anyone."
The concept of building on the tough early losses and turning them into late-season wins is one the entire Arizona squad seems intent on grasping.
"I think we've seen the best teams in the nation, and we knew we could compete against them," said redshirt sophomore quarterback Richard Kovalcheck. "We can go from here for the rest of the season."
Kovalcheck threw for 181 yards and three touchdowns Saturday, a strong turnaround from the Oct. 1 game against Cal when he threw three interceptions and failed to reach the end zone even once.
"Richard bounced back, and that was the biggest positive to me," Stoops said.
"Our confidence is high, and these next (six games) are winnable," Cason said.
Confidence is an important issue for Arizona heading into the remainder of the schedule, as the Wildcats face three more teams ranked in the Top 25 (UCLA, Oregon, ASU) needing wins in five of their last six games to qualify for the postseason.
"Our kids gained some confidence," Stoops said. "We have to just keep growing as a program and getting bigger, stronger and faster."