Look at the clock, coach. THE CLOCK!
Photo by Matt Strasen/US Presswire

It was as if the Arizona Wildcats were following the same bad script.

Last year’s Holiday Bowl went like this: early turnover, quick deficit, game over. Never a lead, no tie after 0-0, no contest in the second half.

The 2010 Alamo Bowl was the same story.

Add in the rest of the five-game slide to end the season and it begs the question: Has Mike Stoops lost his will to fight?

You’re going to get dominated from time to time. Sometimes in big bowl games. Sometimes two years in a row. But it’s never acceptable to stop fighting, and there was a play at the end of each half in San Antonio that looked alarmingly like the Wildcats giving up.

The final seconds of the 2nd quarter ticked away with Arizona in Oklahoma State territory with timeouts to spare. Stoops said he let the clock expire because he thought the previous play was 4th down. That doesn’t make any sense. If you think it’s 4th-and-25, you punt. You certainly don’t let your offensive coordinator call a running play with the clock stopping on a change of possession. You know OSU would’ve used all of its timeouts to try and tack on one more score.

Did Stoops simply lose track of the clock (both before and after the draw play) or did he mentally check out after the offensive pass interference call?

The white flag was definitely being waved early in the 4th quarter. Trailing by 23, Nick Foles was sacked to set up a 3rd-and-16 at the OSU 20. The Cats called a running play and attempted a field goal (which, naturally, was missed).

Three points do nothing when you’re down three touchdowns either way. It was an interesting contrast to the end of the Nebraska game last year. Passing up a field goal to go for six on 4th-and-3 was, on a small scale, noble. The message was, “If we’re going to get points tonight it’s going to be by winning this play and crossing the goal line.”

Against the Cowboys it was the opposite. The message appeared to be, “We have no chance so we may as well try and make the thrashing a little less severe.”

Arizona wasn’t going to complete a Hail Mary pass before halftime. The Cats weren’t going to rattle off 24 straight points in the final 10 minutes. But Mike Stoops could have shown his players and the ticket-buying public he was going to fire every last bullet.

Especially in a game named after the Alamo.

Bowl games are a season unto themselves so you don’t want to read too much into one evening of football against a record-setting team. But the evidence is growing that Stoops isn’t fueled by the same bravado that carried him to Tucson seven years ago.

In November Stoops was asked to compare the situation at Arizona to the facilities mega-upgrades that have led to Oregon’s recent success. He said, “I can’t erase 125 years of not going to the Rose Bowl. As much pressure as I can put on myself, I can’t take all that responsibility. It can’t be just all bad playing and all coaching.”

It sounds like a young coach who is becoming an old coach who is realizing the mountain he chose to climb is steeper than originally anticipated.

Did you know that Stoops is two seasons away from owning the third longest coaching tenure in Arizona football history? Pop McKale ran the UA program for 16 years and Dick Tomey was here for 14. Miles Casteel and Jim LaRue each piloted the Wildcats for eight years and Larry Smith was in charge for seven. This isn’t a rookie coach any more.

There’s no way Stoops thought he would be 7-6 in Year 7 while still carrying a career losing record. And it certainly isn’t helping the ego to have back-to-back bowl losses to teams from his old conference.

Stoops got it exactly right in his quote. His mission is to erase 32 years of Pac-10 play with no trips to the Rose Bowl, and 74 years of football without an outright conference championship.

Does he still accept this mission? Does Mike Stoops still believe you can win a championship at Arizona?

Does he still believe that he can win a championship?

It wouldn’t be right to give up on Stoops after a step backwards that isn’t even his first step backwards. After going 6-6 and 5-7 in 2006 and 2007 the Wildcats were able to bounce back with the consecutive eight-win season. Stocks sometimes dip before moving up and to the right.

How much fight is left in the Arizona coach? The upcoming offseason will be very telling. Is Stoops willing to battle for the quality assistant coaches he needs? Is he ready to do everything possible to help raise the money for the facilities he desperately craves?

I’m not ready to say 2011 is “win or else.” The major question marks on both lines mean another round of patience is needed. But by the end of 2012 we’ll know if Stoops is back to moving up the mountain or if he’s sliding off the mesa.

I’m rooting for him. Mike Stoops took a chance on Arizona when it was at the bottom of the Pac-10. He came here to try and do something that has never been done before. He deserves a chance to turn things around, or make one final stand.

Just don’t save any of those bullets, coach.

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Scott Terrell survived the drive to San Antonio and back. Send him your trip report via Facebook and Twitter!