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October 11, 2013
Arizona rally falls short, USC wins first game under Orgeron
A team that had issues in the passing game through the first month of the season was suddenly alive and well.
"It's not over yet," Denker told his teammates on the sideline.
Except, the defensive unit that carried a bulk of the load through the first four games did not have it Thursday night at the Coliseum.
"We waited too long to try to execute and we ran out of time," said Wildcats linebacker Marquis Flowers, who racked up a game-high 14 tackles.
Denker completed 28 of 44 throws for 363 yards and four touchdowns - all career highs - but a 28-3 first-half hole was too much to overcome.
His counterpart, Trojans quarterback Cody Kessler, threw for 159 of his 297 yards and both of his touchdowns in the opening quarter and torched the UA secondary. Kessler's scores to Nelson Agholor and Tre Madden were for 62 and 63 yards, respectively.
Orgeron, who took over the program after Lane Kiffin was fired Sept. 29, huddled up his players on the field two hours before the game, adding to the list of positive changes the Trojans (4-2, 1-2 Pac-12 Conference) have made under his leadership.
Among them was the decision to allow former USC star receiver Keyshawn Johnson, dressed in a Ronnie Lott jersey, to lead the team out of the tunnel before the game.
"I had a blast," Orgeron said. "I woke up happy for the first time in my life today. And I am not a happy guy, but I was happy."
He added: "It's about the overall concept that 'we care about the team.' … We did some motivational things that I thought were very good. I have to give credit to these players, they really bought in."
The Trojans racked up 546 yards of total offense without star receiver Marqise Lee, who missed the game with a left knee sprain.
On the ground, USC collected 249 yards and Javorius Allen accounted for two of the three rushing touchdowns.
"I thought our guys played hard - but, gosh, we surely didn't execute, at times," UA head coach Rich Rodriguez said. "We gave up some big plays, looks like busted coverages.
"I know we'll be sick watching the film. But you've got to give (USC) credit, too."
Already down 28-10 at the half, the Wildcats (3-2, 0-2 Pac-12) continued to hurt themselves on the defensive side of the ball. Facing a third-and-11, Kessler took off for a 34-yard run, untouched, to set up Andre Heidari's 45-yard field goal with 8:15 left in the third.
But UA made things interesting after it looked like Denker had a problem with his throwing shoulder. After loosening his arm along the sideline, the senior followed up Ka'Deem Carey's 39-yard gain and, two plays later, delivered a 45-yard touchdown to Wharton. The PAT pulled the Wildcats to within 31-17 on a drive that lasted less than a minute.
Carey finished with 138 rushing yards on 21 carries, putting him over the century mark for an eighth consecutive game, dating back to last season.
But the defense, which failed to show signs of life for much of the night and was not helped by USC's field position, either, could never give the offense much of a chance.
Allen's 4-yard run - his second touchdown of the night - in the opening minute of the fourth put the game out of reach just enough.
Denker's 9-yard throw to David Richards in the back corner on the left side of the end zone restored the deficit to 14 points at the 6:48 mark, setting up the final flurry.
"Our guys have always been pretty resilient," Rodriguez said. "They've never been one to get real high or real low, and I thought we had plenty of time."
After Wharton's second touchdown of the night, Rodriguez said he considered attempting an onside kick, but wanted to see if UA could pin USC deep and force a quick punt.
But Flowers owned up to failing to reach Redd quick enough on the game-clinching play. One tackle too short, one offensive opportunity too short.
"I think we just made mistakes," Flowers added.
After trading punts to open the contest, USC opened up the playbook on the second drive. Kessler dropped back on first down and fired a 62-yard touchdown to Agholor, one of just two scholarship receivers available for the dinged up Trojans, to take the early 7-0 lead.
Arizona responded well, moving the ball better on the next series, but Jake Smith missed a 38-yard field goal to keep the momentum in USC's favor. The Trojans made them pay immediately, too.
On the fifth play of the ensuing drive, Kessler then found Madden, a running back but the team's leading available receiver, for a 63-yard strike aided by poor tackling to run the score to 14-0 with 5:02 left in the quarter.
The Wildcats had the ball for just 52 seconds before punting, and the emotional effect of a midseason coaching change was in full force.
"You want a coach that you would go to war for every time," Kessler said. "And this guy here to my right, and I don't just speak for myself, we would go to war for him. When you cannot only see but feel how much he loves us, we would go to war for him."
Trailing 28-3 just before halftime, Denker responded inside the final minute with a 57-yard rainbow to Nate Phillips for a touchdown. The completion put Denker over 200 passing yards for the first time in his career.
His previous high was 158 yards against UTSA.