Arizona 24, (8) California 20
TUCSON, Ariz. — California center Alex Mack was philosophical about the eighth-ranked Golden Bears' 24-20 loss to Arizona Saturday afternoon.
"It's not over," he said. "It just hurts."
The loss knocked the Golden Bears (8-2, 6-1 Pac-10) out of the national title hunt. But Cal can still clinch its first Rose Bowl berth since the 1958 season with a victory at No. 7 Southern California next week.
For Arizona, the victory was another milestone on the road to respectability. The Wildcats, who won three games each of the last two years, have knocked off a top 25 team on consecutive Saturdays. Last week it was then-No 25 Washington State.
"It has been a long day, but it ended great," said Arizona coach Mike Stoops, who has beaten four ranked opponents in three seasons. "People rushing the field at the end, that's always a good sign."
While delirious Arizona students tried to tug down the north goalpost at dusk Saturday, the Bears looked back on a series of plays that cost them the victory.
"There were a lot of things today — a lot of things," California coach Jeff Tedford said.
The strange plays are perhaps the best way to explain how the Bears blew a 17-3 third-quarter lead against a team that had averaged 13.8 points in the first nine games — and how they lost despite outgaining Arizona 356 yards to 262.
"The whole game was like plays going their way," cornerback Daymeion Hughes said. "I was like, 'Man, this can't be real."'
The first one came midway through the first quarter, when a block-in-the-back penalty on receiver Lavelle Hawkins nullified tailback Marshawn Lynch's 79-yard touchdown run. The ball was brought back to Arizona's 33-yard line and the Bears had to settle for a field goal and a 10-3 lead.
With Cal clinging to a 17-10 lead late in the third quarter, a defensive holding call erased an interception by the Bears' Bernard Hicks. Two plays later, Hughes appeared to pick off a Willie Tuitama pass at goal line, only to have an official flag him for interference.
"That play right there was crucial," Hughes said. "That's usually a no-call. It wasn't blatant. I was just going for the football."
Two plays later, Arizona tailback Chris Henry scored on a 4-yard run to tie the game at 17-17.
Arizona went ahead 24-17 early in the fourth quarter when cornerback Antoine Cason returned an interception 39 yards for a touchdown.
"They've got good defensive backs and they jumped me," said quarterback Nate Longshore, who threw three interceptions.
On the next series, Longshore hit Hawkins behind the Arizona secondary. But with no one between him and the end zone, Hawkins stumbled at about the 10 and landed at the Wildcats' 1.
Cal failed to score on two Marshawn Lynch runs and an incomplete pass and settled for a 20-yard field goal by Tom Schneider.
The most painful play came on Cal's final thrust. Longshore hit Jackson for an apparent 63-yard touchdown pass with 2:18 to play. But the score was nullified by a video review, which showed that Jackson stepped out at Arizona's 41.
"I wasn't paying attention to the sideline," Jackson said. "I just made the catch."
It was about the only time Arizona managed to stop the speedy Jackson, who returned a punt 95 yards for a touchdown and caught a 62-yard touchdown pass. The punt return was his fourth for a touchdown this season and the fifth of his career, both Pac-10 records.
Jackson finished with six receptions for 131 yards despite battling the flu.
Stoops' reaction when Jackson was ruled out of bounds? "The football gods are smiling on us," he said.
Cal reached the Arizona 27 before Arizona linebacker Ronnie Palmer intercepted a pass with 1:32 to play.
"We made just enough plays to win," Stoops said.
Or perhaps Cal didn't make enough plays. The Golden Bears came into this game averaging 36.3 points per game, tied with Oregon for most in the Pac-10.
The Bears had the league's leading rusher, Lynch, and its most efficient passer, Longshore. But while Lynch rushed for 102 yards, the Bears never found an offensive rhythm.
"You just have these games sometimes, and it was one of those games for us," Longshore said. "It's really nobody's fault. We just couldn't get anything going."