By Eric Wein
Arizona Daily Wildcat
The ball settled there in the stillness. It had missed its mark and rested on the grass for a brief instant as did the Wildcats' destiny. The hopes of some 55,000 Arizona fans sank as they watched what happened.
A fumble came in the third quarter when Dan White was hit as he handed off to Ontiwaun Carter, and the ball fell to the turf. Instead of completing a drive which would almost certainly end in a score, the Wildcats watched as Colorado State defensive end Sean Moran scooped up the ball and rumbled 77 yards for a touchdown. As Moran drifted past the Wildcats so too did any thoughts of a possible national championship or an unbeaten season.
"We all hate this feeling," said Arizona coach Dick Tomey following the Wildcats' 21-16 loss to Colorado State Saturday night. "It's like a stake in the heart."
Moran's touchdown put the No. 13 Rams (6-0) ahead by 15 points, 21-6, and gave the Wildcats a huge barrier to overcome as they suddenly had to play catch up for the rest of the night.
"It was tough to take when I saw it," safety Brandon Sanders said. "That was a big one. That ended up being the difference in the game. But it was more than the fumble."
Sure, Arizona (4-1) had chances to come back.
Trailing by the final score, the Wildcats came up with the ball with 5:40 left and again with 48 seconds remaining. But since there was really only so much Carter (36 carries, 231 yards) could do and the UA passing game was sporadic, a comeback would be difficult at first and ultimately miraculous.
Arizona, which slipped to No. 14 in the Associated Press poll after the game, had trouble putting together a late game drive like they had against Georgia Tech.
"We didn't execute," White said. "I missed some reads, made some bad throws. But it wasn't just the last two drives."
Silence spread across Arizona Stadium once the Wildcats blew their final possession as the ball slipped out of the hands of Cullen Plousha when he fell to the ground. The only sound came from the Colo- rado State players who stood on their bench and taunted the Arizona fans behind them, their behavior the only real blemish on an otherwise much deserved win.
Would any team that couldn't score a touchdown until the fourth quarter have a shot at winning? Not on this night or most nights for that matter.
White (21 of 38, 199 yards) had trouble buying time with the Rams' front line coming at him often, but did rely on finding Carter (eight catches, 56 yards) in the flat or on short routes. His more frequent connection, Richard Dice, was slowed by a hip injury in the latter stages. The problem was converting on fourth down to continue a drive, which happened only once for the Wildcats during the game when the Rams were called for an offsides penalty. Field goals alone also wouldn't cut it.
"You have to put it in the end zone and we didn't do that," White said.
Meanwhile, the Rams moved down the field with ease for their two touchdown drives. By the time the UA defense shut them down in the fourth quarter, a turnover was needed to prevent Colorado State from killing more time.
Even the Wildcats' lone touchdown play wasn't easy. White was nailed again as he threw toward the end zone and Dice crouched to grab the slow, wobbly pass.
Scoring came by way of Steve McLaughlin. The senior kicker has been virtually flawless this season, but there is only so much the he can do. He was successful on field goal attempts of 47, 44 and 42 yards, his only miss coming on an improbable 62 yarder that fell short by a few yards and to the right.
When the Rams needed big plays, they got them passing. Colorado State quarterback Anthoney Hill found tight end Justin Shull wide open in the end zone on the Rams' two touchdowns.
Hill (13 of 28, 251 yards) consistently rolled out of the pocket and found his targets on several long plays.
"He was nifty enough to avoid the rush and get us some more time, and it was tough on the secondary then," Colorado State coach Sonny Lubick said.
However, the UA secondary had its own problems.
"We had a lot of mental busts," Sanders said. "We weren't thinking about what we were doing."
Finishing the season as the No. 1 team is now likely just an improbable idea spread across the cover of a sports magazine like a novelty. The opportunity for the school's first Rose Bowl berth is unaffected since it was a nonconference game unless, of course, the Wildcats are to struggle as they did.
A few UA players said it would be a wake up call and they would learn from their mistakes, but the misery that spread across Arizona's locker room didn't dictate that.
"I don't think there are any positives in losing," Tomey said. "Down the road, it may turn out there are some. Right now, it's hard to perceive any."
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