One can only wonder what could have been had Arizona been able to vanquish its past field goal demons Saturday night.
The Wildcats missed a pair of critical field goals on consecutive drives and lost to No. 6-ranked Stanford, 37-10, to open Pac-12 play in front of 49,636 at Arizona Stadium.
"We had chances to keep the game within striking distance," UA head coach Mike Stoops said, "but the missed field goals at the end of the first half and the beginning of the second really brought us down."
Stoops' game plan to stick with his struggling running game produced results to open the second half.
Trailing 16-10, starting running back Keola Antolin broke free for rushes of 31 and 18 yards, respectively, to ignite the Wildcats. However, UA's field goal woes, which were costly last season with then-starter Alex Zendejas, came back as Jaime Salazar missed a 36-yarder - his second miscue of the night.
"Stanford is a team that is excellent on offense and defense, and missing opportunities to score really made things difficult for us," Stoops said. "Giving them that extra possession was especially disheartening for us."
Three drives later, Cardinal quarterback Andrew Luck orchestrated a seven-play, 81-yard scoring drive highlighted by a wide-open, 39-yard completion to tight end Levine Toilolo. After scrambling for a 15-yard gain to the Arizona 18, Luck found tight end Zach Ertz for a 16-yard touchdown with 5:22 left in the third quarter to extend the Cardinal lead to 23-10.
"Tonight was a win, and that's all that matters at the end of the day," Luck said. "It was nice that the team could come into a hostile environment and get a win against a good team."
Six seconds into the fourth quarter, Luck again found a wide-open Toilolo - this time for a 34-yard touchdown to help the Cardinal pull away. Stoops said Stanford's tight-end formations put his defense "out of whack in the second half."
"I have to be staying open in the field," Toilolo said. "The tight ends that we have played very well and we helped each other out tonight."
Stanford (3-0, 1-0 Pac-12) was powered by running back Stepfan Taylor, who rushed for a career-high 153 yards on 22 carries in the victory. Luck finished with 325 yards and two touchdowns on 20-of-31 passing.
"Stepfan is special," Stanford head coach David Shaw said. "He's a special back in a special group. We really feel like we're the deepest in the country at that position. Stepfan was awesome tonight."
UA (1-2, 0-1 Pac-12) has now lost seven straight games to Football Bowl Subdivision teams dating back to October of last season. The Wildcats were paced by quarterback Nick Foles, who completed his first 17 passes and finished 24-of-33 for 239 yards and a touchdown. Senior wide receiver Juron Criner returned from a Sept. 5 appendectomy and caught a game-high six passes for 48 yards and a touchdown.
"It was nice to have Juron back out there," Foles said. "He's a big target and it was just really great to have him back."
Missing from the Wildcats' attack for most of the night, and early season, however, is a consistent running game. The team gained just 51 yards on 23 carries against the nation's second-best run defense.
"Our inability to balance our offense keeps us from keeping up with these very good teams," Stoops said.
With 6:15 left in the first quarter and Stanford driving inside the Arizona 5-yard line, Wildcats cornerback Trevin Wade intercepted Luck on third down at the 1-yard line. However, the call was overturned by replay and Cardinal kicker Jordan Williamson put Stanford ahead 3-0 with a field goal.
On fourth-and-1, Stanford let its offense go to work, as Anthony Wilkerson received a toss and rushed 24 yards untouched into the end zone to extend the Cardinal lead to 10-0.
The Wildcats clawed their way back led by Foles, who completed a 6-yard touchdown to Criner and cut the deficit to 13-10 midway through the second quarter.
Stanford responded on the next drive, as Williamson drilled his third field goal of the half to give the Cardinal a 16-10 lead heading to the locker room.
Salazar, who made just 1 of 3 attempts, missed a 45-yard field goal as time expired in the half. When asked about the possibility of Zendejas taking over place-kicking duties again, Stoops said, "We'll see."
"We've got to give him (Zendejas) a chance to get back in there," Stoops added.