TUCSON — One week ago, Arizona and Stanford each controlled their own Rose Bowl destinies.
No longer. After both teams lost last weekend, Saturday's game in Arizona Stadium is shaping up as a virtual elimination game in the conference race.
"Both teams need to win and both teams are very capable and good teams," Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh said. "It'll be a test of wills and opposing wills, like most of these games are."
The Cardinal (4-2, 3-1 Pac-10) rocketed to the top of the conference standings by sweeping their first three Pac-10 games, against Washington State, Washington and UCLA. But Stanford stumbled last weekend in a 38-28 loss at Oregon State.
Arizona (3-2, 1-1) won its Pac-10 opener and appeared on its way to another victory at Washington last week when it was victimized by a strange play. A pass from Nick Foles bounced off Delashaun Dean's foot and into the arms of a Husky defender who returned it for what proved to be the decisive touchdown in Washington's 36-33 victory.
The play stood up under a video review by the officials, but Dean insisted this week that the ball had hit the ground first and should have been ruled incomplete.
The play was the talk of the Pac-10 this week, and Harbaugh said he understood what the Wildcats went through.
"I've been part of some real tough losses like that," he said. "That was a minor miracle."
The Wildcats still seemed a bit stunned as they returned to practice this week. But Foles and others vowed the defeat wouldn't linger.
"This is when leaders step up," said Foles, a transfer from Michigan State who will make his third college start, and his first at home. "You learn a lot from losing a game, you learn a lot about the character of your team, and I know we're going to come back from this strong."
Arizona is happy to return to the desert, where the temperature is expected to be close to 100 degrees for the 4 p.m. MST kickoff. The defeat at Seattle ended a 1-2 road trip that included a loss at Iowa and a victory at Oregon State.
The Wildcats have gone 35 days between games at Arizona Stadium, but they'll make up for it with three straight home games, against Stanford, UCLA and Washington State.
"I look for our team to bounce back quickly," Arizona coach Mike Stoops said. "It's going to be nice to be home for the next month."
On Saturday, the Wildcats will play host to a Stanford team that may remind them of themselves. Both schools have been known for their prowess in basketball, golf and Olympic sports and for sporadic success in football.
Since Arizona and Stanford tied for last place in the Pac-10 in 2002, they have combined for one winning conference record — Arizona's 5-4 mark last season.
But both programs have been on the upswing in recent seasons. Arizona broke a nine-year bowl drought under coach Mike Stoops last year, and Stanford improved from four victories to five in Harbaugh's second year.
"He's done a really remarkable job," Stoops said. "I love the way his team plays. They're very smart obviously, intelligent kids, and they understand their system and that enables them to do a lot of things offensively and move a lot of personnel around. They give you a bunch of different looks, a very pro-oriented style."
In a down year for quarterbacks in the Pac-10, Arizona and Stanford have discovered talented young signalcallers.
Foles, a sophomore, has completed 71.7 percent of his passes and leads the league in passing efficiency. Stanford freshman Andrew Luck, who has completed 57.1 percent of his throws, is ranked second in passing efficiency.
Both QBs have six touchdown passes and only two interceptions.
Stanford tries to take the pressure off Luck by handing off to senior Toby Gerhart, a 6-foot-1, 237-pound nightmare for opposing tacklers. Gerhart ranks fourth nationally with 124.3 yards rushing per game, and with 10 touchdowns in six games, he's seemingly unstoppable near the goal line.
"They do a good job of getting him started, and that's the big thing with a big back," Stoops said.