Every Monday throughout the season, we’ll take a look back at the Arizona Wildcats’ previous game after re-watching the TV broadcast and present five key takeaways. Here are the five from the UA’s 30-24 loss to Utah on Friday night:
1. Management failure
Whether he plays great or poorly – and there seems to be no in between – the spotlight invariably falls on quarterback Brandon Dawkins. Such is the nature of his performance and position. His four turnovers obviously had as big an influence as anything that happened in the game. What’s most worrisome about them is Dawkins’ lack of situational awareness; as a redshirt junior who has started 13 games, he ought to know better. Three examples: (1) The pick-six. It was third-and-3 from the Arizona 12 late in the third quarter. Shun Brown never was open. No one was. To get the ball to him, Dawkins had to throw across his body and across the body of a defender. If ever there were a time to tuck and run or throw the ball away, this was it. (2) The fumble. Was Dawkins down? Maybe. Probably. But this much is indisputable: He never put two hands around the ball to secure it and ensure no one could strip it. (3) The last drive. For the second time in a desperation situation (Houston was the first), Dawkins dumped the ball in the flat to J.J. Taylor for a loss. The Wildcats needed to go 75 yards in 2:07. This wasn’t the time to throw a checkdown. Two plays later, Dawkins forced the ball deep down the middle for the clinching pick.
2. What next?
Here we are again, facing a quarterback question that seems to have no obvious answer. What should Rich Rodriguez do? What will he do? Although Rodriguez said after the game that this week’s bye did not come at an opportune time – he was eager to play again to erase the sting of Friday night, a sentiment surely shared by his players – it’s actually perfect in one sense: If Rodriguez plans to make a QB change, or at least explore one, he has two weeks to do it. Rodriguez can use that time to reopen the competition and declare that the best quarterback will start at Colorado a week from Saturday. Doing so would appeal to the competitive nature of all the candidates and send a message to the rest of the team about accountability. Sophomore Khalil Tate is the most qualified “next man up” and appeared healthier during warmups than he had the previous two weeks. Freshman Rhett Rodriguez, the coach’s son, is a dark horse but one that can’t be ruled out.
3. Defense rises
As depicted earlier in the week, Arizona’s defense has improved markedly in myriad ways. What stood out most in the Utah game was the way the defense adjusted. Both Utes touchdowns came on the opening drive of each half; their only other TD came on the pick-six. The Wildcats started out in off coverage; they later tightened things up, and the more they mixed their looks, the more hesitant Utah’s quarterbacks became. The Utes’ field-goal drive in the fourth quarter – the only fourth-quarter points the Cats have allowed in their past three games – was aided by a pair of 15-yard penalties. (The pass interference against Lorenzo Burns was iffy at best; the unsportsmanlike conduct on Dereck Boles was a bad decision and a good call.) When Utah was trying to milk the clock late, Arizona recognized that, crowded the line of scrimmage and got the Utes off the field. Twice defensive linemen penetrated the backfield to create tackles for losses and thwart drives. First it was Luca Bruno; then it was Justin Belknap. Both times Colin Schooler swooped in to make the tackle.
4. This time it’s personnel
Every week we provide some notes on individual players, so here goes … His killer late drop aside, RB Nick Wilson ran hard and well. He needed to get the ball earlier than the middle of the second quarter. … WR Tony Ellison continues to impress. His running style after the catch is different than Shun Brown’s but no less effective. It might be time to move Ellison into the top three. … The offensive line’s performance was as wildly inconsistent as Dawkins’. One play the execution would be perfect; the next a pulling guard or tackle would flat-out miss his target. LT Layth Friekh allowed two sacks, but he wasn’t the only one who struggled at times against Utah’s fierce front. … Finton Connolly quietly is becoming Arizona’s most productive interior lineman. He never stops hustling. … MLB Brandon Rutt has been a good soldier and a valuable vet, but Schooler makes more plays and has a higher upside. It’s time for him to take over. … The book remains the same on WLB Tony Fields II: great closing speed and activity level, needs more strength and better leverage at the point of attack. … If the UA secondary is going to play off coverage, CBs Jace Whittaker and Lorenzo Burns have to tackle better.
5. Same old, same old?
As a colleague noted, Arizona’s start bears a striking resemblance to last year’s. The UA lost a nail-biter to an equal non-conference foe (BYU last year, Houston this year), won twice with relative ease as a favorite and lost a one-score heartbreaker at home in the Pac-12 opener (Washington last year, Utah this year). So what’s different, if anything? Why should Arizona fans feel more hopeful? Two factors: (1) As mentioned, the defense has gotten noticeably better. And with so many young players – plus the projected return of senior pass rusher DeAndre’ Miller – the unit has yet to reach its peak. (2) The Wildcats remain relatively healthy. By this time last year, Arizona already was down one quarterback (Anu Solomon) and two running backs (Wilson, Taylor). If nothing else, the Wildcats showed fight Friday night. When the offense would falter, the defense would pick it up by getting stops. Despite all the mistakes, Arizona still had a shot. Now it’s a matter of cleaning things up and finishing games. Rodriguez’s future here depends on it.