A national championship wasn't lost in the desert last Saturday night, it was only imperiled. As Warner Smith, a senior offensive guard for Arizona, said the morning after a 21-16 loss to Colorado State tore a gaping hole in the Wildcats' title dream, "The season isn't in the tank quite yet, but it's definitely a dark day around here."
Upsets have become October's theme in college football. September's theme was inexplicable blowouts, which seemed to establish a super elite in the rankings. Now Michigan has been beaten (miraculously, but nonetheless beaten); Miami, beaten; Florida State, beaten; and Nebraska, wounded. Arizona simply fell into line—and fell to 4-1.
"We had a lot of goals this year," says Tedy Bruschi, the junior defensive end and a member of the Wildcats' scarred Desert Swarm defense. "Colorado State just got us."
And then reveled in the accomplishment. The Rams flew home on Sunday morning and, dressed in their green-and-gold sweats, proudly strode through Denver's Stapleton Airport. There were cheers of recognition at the airport and more cheers on I-25, where cars honked their horns in celebration as the team buses headed north to Fort Collins. More than 250 students and fans greeted the players upon their arrival on campus.
And why not? Colorado State is 6-0 for the first time in 69 years and is ranked 13th in the country. (And its victory over Arizona ran the Western Athletic Conference's record against the Pac-10 to a stunning 6-2.) The Rams are vastly improved over last year, when they went 5-6, but beating the Wildcats was a delightful surprise for a school whose coach, Sonny Lubick, regretted having shown his team a tape of the Wildcats' 29-0 romp over Miami in last year's Fiesta Bowl. "We watched it, and I thought, Gee, that was stupid," says Lubick. "I didn't think we had a great shot at them."
For Arizona, two problems were evident.
•Poor adapting to the upper crust. "Here we are on the cover of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED [as preseason No. 1]; people are calling us a great team," says Bruschi. "Everybody starts shooting for you. It makes me understand what teams like Miami and Florida State go through every week."
•No game-breaking plays from a still-toothless offense and no game-saving plays from the renowned defense. Six second-half Arizona drives that reached at least midfield resulted in only 10 points. "We could not make a play that counted," said Wildcat coach Dick Tomey.
"I should have forced a fumble or made a big play on defense," said Bruschi. Ironically, it was Colorado State that did. In the third quarter, with Arizona trailing 14-6, quarterback Dan White handed off the ball on second-and-one, but Ram linebacker Garrett Sand knocked it loose. Defensive end Sean Moran scooped up the fumble and returned it 77 yards for the killing score. More ominous for Arizona, teams appear to be catching up with the Wildcats' double-eagle-flex defense.
But there is scant time to mourn. Arizona plays at 4-1 Washington State on Saturday. "Good teams bounce back," Tomey said.
There will be plenty of opportunity to test Tomey's theory. Look at the schedule: Penn State at Michigan (Saturday), Nebraska at Kansas State (Saturday), Auburn at Florida (Saturday), Colorado at Nebraska (Oct. 29), Miami at Syracuse (Nov. 5), Notre Dame versus Florida State in Orlando (Nov. 12), Florida at Florida State (Nov. 26).
Lots of dark days and lots of bounce-backs. It's your next theme.
Shawn Parnell (15) and the Wildcats had reason to be down, unlike Justin Shull, who scored the Rams' first TD.