The No. 4 California Phoenix have been a curious case.
Despite improving to 9-0 on the season, they have often brought with themselves themselves an odd air of confident vulnerability. Yes, those are strange words to conflate — especially for a sports team — but they are the only way to truly understand Walter White’s upstarts this year.
They are vulnerable, having needed more than a last second victories to keep their undefeated record intact.
And they are confident, because they have proven capable of doing so, regardless of the condition or opponent.
But comeback after comeback and heartstopper after heartstopper must take its toll eventually. What it gives in the win column, it eventually takes in emotional endurance and mental energy — and on Saturday, it took, as California was stunned by unranked Arizona.
The Phoenix fell 32-28 to the Wildcats in Tucson, an upset that seriously hurts their chances at a potential BCS Championship appearance.
It was a game they could have easily won — behind Nam Le’s three touchdown passes and a couple of key stops, California had clawed its way to a 28-25 lead with 3:25 to play. Even more importantly, they had the game essentially won, with Heisman candidate Josh Toyofuku fully capable of running out the clock on his own.
But after reaching the Arizona 9 yard line, head coach Walter White got greedy, guilty of trying to run up the score to impress the voters. White would call all three of his timeouts on successive runs, setting up a 4th and goal from the 3 with about 30 seconds to play.
Rather than take the field goal, or even kneel, he elected to try again for the score, and he would pay dearly — the Wildcats swarmed Toyofuku on an option pitch out of the Fawkes formation, stopping him cold and several yards short of the goalline.
“That was my fault. That call isn’t on Josh, it isn’t on our linemen, it isn’t on Nam. That’s me. Don’t blame the kids for that one. They played well enough to win. They’re just executing the playcalls. That’s on me,” a visibly frustrated White said, his voice hoarse. “That’s on me.”
“If we’re going to be the championship team that we think we’re capable of being this year, we cannot be making those kinds of mistakes. So I take full responsibility. Awful decision.”
“I thought we would need some extra help to crack the top 2,” he explained. “Georgia Tech, Maryland and Ohio State? Those are good teams. I thought we could stand to juice the resume a bit.”
“That’s on me.”
Still, the game was not over at that point. The Wildcats still trailed by three with 30 seconds to play, and a stop could have resulted in a California victory, even after the horrendous decision. But Arizona would proceed to have the kind of drive the Phoenix have been so well accustomed to in recent seasons, needing only two passes to win the game. The first came on a pass from Javelle Allen to tailback Pierre Cormier, gaining 34 yards and giving Arizona the ball at the California 47.
The second would end the game entirely, with Allen hitting wide receiver David Richards for a 53 yard score. Richards, a 6’2 junior, snuck behind cornerback Willie Maddox in coverage and hauled it in clean the whole way, sprinting into the end zone for the winning score.
“The guy made a play. [Maddox] got stuck looking in the backfield and tried to recover, but you can’t do that in the Pac-12. The athletes are too good. That’s gonna be six every time. But [Richards] made a play. Hats off to him. Hats off to Zona,” White said softly, shrugging sadly.
California could do nothing with the ensuing kickoff, attempting only some ill-fated laterals before being tackled well short of the goal-line.
The Play II, there would not be, and the stands began to empty not more than a second later, as jubilant Wildcat fans started to burst onto the field from all corners while the Phoenix watched helplessly.
“Maybe,” cornerback Ben Yee said, when asked if the loss had knocked them out of BCS contention. “We just gotta worry about winning our next game.”
A dejected Nam Le shook his head at the same question.
“I don’t know. This one hurts, man.”
“This one hurts.”
Le: 17 of 29, 248 yards, 3 touchdowns, 12 carries, 32 yards; Toyofuku: 21 carries, 114 yards, 1 touchdown; Williams: 6 catches, 106 yards; Novak: 4 catches, 56 yards, 2 touchdowns; Wolf: 3 catches, 46 yards, touchdown
Defensive notables: Moty: 8 tackles, 2 TFL; Romanov: 4 tackles, 3 TFL; Yip: 4 tackles, 1 TFL; Paraon: 3 tackles, 1 interception