TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — The Arizona Wildcats find themselves in a familiar position this week.
The Wildcats are trying to explain what went wrong in a 24-23 loss at Stanford last weekend, just as they did after losing at New Mexico last month.
In both cases, the Wildcats lost to teams they thought they should have beaten.
"Another rebound week, just like New Mexico," free safety Nate Ness said Monday. "Another loss we've got to forget."
After stumbling to a 36-28 loss to the Lobos on Sept. 13, the Wildcats said they had learned a valuable lesson about overlooking opponents. But they clearly need to learn it again.
"That is something I was thinking about after the (Stanford) game," defensive end Brooks Reed said. "How can we lose to a team that we felt we were going to beat?"
It's hard to imagine that a program whose last bowl appearance came in December 1998 would look past anyone.
Besides, the Stanford loss probably shouldn't be classified as an upset. Like Arizona, Stanford has won four games and lost to a Mountain West team.
Nevertheless, the loss changed the vibe around campus. No one asked coach Mike Stoops if he thought his Wildcats deserved to be ranked this week. A reporter tossed that question at Stoops after the Wildcats had drubbed Washington on Oct. 4 for their fourth win in five games.
On Monday, Stoops faced a different question: how will your team bounce back after losing to Stanford?
"It is disheartening we lost," Stoops said at his weekly campus news conference. "I am not displeased with the way our kids played."
Arizona (4-2, 2-1 Pac-10) has been unable to take advantage of a schedule ranked 111th by the NCAA. But the Pac-10 is particularly forgiving this season, and the Wildcats can make up ground when it plays No. 25 California at Arizona Stadium this weekend.
An Arizona victory over the first-place Golden Bears (4-1, 2-0) would catapult the Wildcats back into the Rose Bowl race — with No. 6 Southern California coming to Tucson on Oct. 25.
Back-to-back games against ranked teams appears daunting. But it may be good news for an Arizona team that seems to play to the level of its competition.
In each of the last two years, the Wildcats have lost to the Pac-10's ninth-place team at home. But they've also knocked off a Top 10 team in each of the last three years, and they've beaten five ranked teams in Stoops' five seasons.
"It is like teams we are supposed to beat, we play to their level instead of playing to our level," Ness said.
But what is Arizona's level? The Wildcats are a difficult team to figure out.
Their offense averages 40.2 points per game, ninth in the nation; that number was inflated by lopsided victories over weak opponents such as Idaho (70-0), Toledo (41-16) and Washington (48-14). But the offense sputtered in the red zone in Palo Alto, producing three field goals on three trips.
"The execution in critical areas was not where it needed to be," Stoops said.
Had the Wildcats scored a touchdown on any of those drives, the outcome might have been different. Instead, they gave the Cardinal a chance for an extraordinary last-minute comeback — extraordinary because it was led by third-string quarterback Alex Loukas, who was 1-for-7 with an interception this season before being inserted in the fourth quarter on Saturday.
Loukas directed an 11-play, 60-yard drive that ended with a one-yard run by bruising tailback Toby Gerhart with 25 seconds to go.
Just like that, Arizona found itself in a familiar position, wondering what went wrong.
Stoops said he spent part of Sunday digesting the loss but then shifted his energy to preparing for Cal.
"All coaches have to do that," he said. "It doesn't matter how good the wins are or how bad the defeat, you have to be able to move on and get yourself in a good mindset going into the next week."