Arizona fans were not a happy lot late Saturday night, and they directed most of their ire at Wildcats coach Rich Rodriguez and his quarterbacks.

But amid all the angst, doom and gloom, a bright spot emerged.

The defense played well in Arizona’s 19-16 loss to Houston.

In just about every conceivable way, the UA defense improved upon its performance from Week 1. That’s an encouraging sign for a program in need of a lift after a frustrating defeat.

“We played a lot better on defense,” Rodriguez said. “We let a couple things out here and there. But we tightened down a little bit. The defense gave the offense a lot of opportunities to win the game.”

The offense didn’t come through, and that undoubtedly will be a focal point for Rodriguez and his staff heading into Friday’s game at UTEP. If the defense continues to play the way it did against the Cougars — especially in the second half — the offense won’t need to be great for the Wildcats to win.

Houston scored only two points after intermission, on a safety following a Brandon Dawkins fumble. The Cougars gained only 129 yards and converted only 2 of 7 third downs. Quarterback Kyle Allen completed 10 of 12 passes, but they went for only 40 yards. Arizona intercepted him twice.

For the game, Arizona surrendered 383 yards — 179 fewer than in the season opener against Northern Arizona, a lesser opponent. The Wildcats allowed the Cougars to convert 40 percent of their third downs — down from 52.6 percent against the Lumberjacks.

The latter was particularly noteworthy. Arizona ranked 127th out of 128 FBS teams last season in third-down defense, allowing 52.6 percent. The UA forced Houston to punt on four of its first six second-half possessions; the other two ended with interceptions.

Defensive coordinator Marcel Yates sought more from his group in those critical situations, and the unit delivered.

“When it’s third down, we have to have a better sense of getting off the field,” Yates said last week. “Each guy has to say, ‘I’m going to be the one who’s going to be the guy to make that play.’ ”

Junior cornerback Jace Whittaker twice limited Houston receivers to no gain on third-down passes in the second half — including one where the Cougars needed only 1 yard for a first down. But it was Arizona’s freshmen who stood out the most — a good sign for the Wildcats’ immediate and long-term futures.

First-year safety Scottie Young Jr. got credit for the tackle on Dillon Birden’s 2-yard run on third-and-4 late in the fourth quarter. The stop gave Arizona one last chance to tie or take the lead.

Young, a standout all summer, finished with seven tackles, including one for a loss. Fellow freshman Tony Fields II, the starting “Will” linebacker, had a team-high 10 tackles, including eight solos. Redshirt-freshman cornerback Lorenzo Burns matched Young with seven stops and had his first career interception after struggling earlier in the game. Three of Arizona’s four tackles for losses were recorded by true freshmen: Young, “Stud” Kylan Wilborn and defensive tackle Kurtis Brown.

As positive as those developments were, the Wildcats did not achieve the desired result. That’s all that mattered to Arizona’s defenders after the game.

“When you look at the game, you can be like, ‘Oh man, Arizona’s defense gave good effort,’ ” said junior safety Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles, who recorded his third interception of the season. “But the overall outcome is we lost.”

QBs hurting again

So about that quarterback situation …

Rodriguez said he lifted Dawkins in the fourth quarter because he was “a little nicked up.” Dawkins took a hard hit from Houston linebacker Matthew Adams on a 1-yard run late in the third quarter.

On the next play, Dawkins overthrew an open Tony Ellison in the end zone.

Trainers tended to Dawkins on the sideline. He played one more series — a three-and-out — before Rodriguez turned to sophomore Khalil Tate.

Tate led a field-goal drive — but came out for one play in the middle of it. He quarterbacked the team on the next possession, which ended with him throwing an interception.

Rodriguez went back to Dawkins for the final drive, saying afterward that Tate was “still a little sore.” That presumably was a reference to the shoulder injury Tate suffered the previous week. He did not appear on the injury report, but he did not fully participate in pregame warmups, either.

Arizona endured multiple injuries at quarterback last season. Dawkins, Tate and Anu Solomon all were unavailable at various points.

Freshman Rhett Rodriguez played in the opener. Rich Rodriguez said he “wouldn’t hesitate” to play fellow freshman Donavan Tate as well, if necessary.

Extra points

  • UTEP lost 31-14 at home to Rice on Saturday. Rice lost its opener 62-7 to Stanford. Early betting lines had Arizona favored over UTEP by as many as 20ƒ points for Friday night’s game.
  • The Wildcats finished with 219 passing yards — the first time they surpassed 200 since the Utah game last season, a span of seven contests. Utah also was the last time Arizona failed to eclipse 150 rushing yards.
  • Josh Pollack’s 45-yard field goal in the first quarter was 1 yard short of his career best, set in the 2016 opener vs. BYU.
  • Senior tailback Zach Green has at least one rushing touchdown in three straight games and five in his past five games.