SALT LAKE CITY — One step forward, several steps back.
After a rousing victory over Cal last week, the Arizona Wildcats’ weaknesses were exposed in front of a national-TV audience — most of whom probably changed the channel by halftime.
Utah demolished Arizona 42-10 in front of an announced crowd of 45,862 Friday night at Rice-Eccles Stadium. It was the Wildcats’ most lopsided loss of the season and their worst since a 69-7 drubbing at Washington State in 2016.
“Everybody’s gotta take ownership and responsibility. That starts with me,” said UA coach Kevin Sumlin, whose team fell to 3-4, 2-2 in the Pac-12. “In situations like this, the little things can turn into big things.
“The message was basically that everybody’s gotta look at themselves first and how they can be better, including me and the coaches, and then move on.
“There’s not a lot you can do about this. But you don’t want this performance to keep bleeding into the rest of the season.”
Arizona visits UCLA next Saturday. The Wildcats still have a chance to go 1-1 on this road swing. But they’re going to have to play a lot better than they did Friday night.
The UA defense — which won the Cal game with a pair of second-half touchdowns — suddenly couldn’t make a tackle or get a stop. The offense provided little if any help until it was too late, shuffling through multiple quarterbacks in search of an elusive spark.
Khalil Tate started the game, played the first two series and exited after reinjuring the left ankle that has bothered him since Week 2. Tate, who won an unprecedented four straight Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week awards last October, generated 6 yards — 3 passing and 3 rushing.
Sumlin said Tate seemed to be hurt worse than in previous weeks after getting sacked by Chase Hansen.
“I was concerned about him not being able to move at all,” Sumlin said. “Running was out of the question. We’re always going to start with player safety first.
“Tonight was different than the last five, six weeks. After the sack, it was clear to me that he could barely move out there.”
Freshman Jamarye Joiner replaced Tate. Joiner also played two series, completing 3 of 4 passes for 17 yards and rushing five times for 5 yards. His lone incomplete pass was an errant deep shot for Cedric Peterson down the left sideline on fourth-and-2 from the Utah 42-yard line in the second quarter.
Sumlin then turned to sophomore Rhett Rodriguez, who moved the offense and threw his first career TD pass. But two Rodriguez-led drives in the second half ended with failed conversions on fourth-and-1.
“I thought he operated with poise,” Sumlin said of Rodriguez, who finished 20 of 38 for 226 yards in his most extended action as a Wildcat. “He looked comfortable. In a really tough situation, in a tough environment, I thought he handled it very well.”
Rodriguez decided to stay at Arizona despite the school firing his father, Rich, after six seasons as head coach. Rhett’s parents not make this trip. They couldn’t have known their son would play as much as he did.
“I was glad to get the opportunity,” Rodriguez said. “At the same time, I didn’t play perfect. The whole team could have played better. I wish it could have been in a better circumstance.”
Regarding the QB situation moving forward, Sumlin said: “We’ll assess that next week.” That assessment will include Tate’s health and the progress made by freshmen Joiner and Kevin Doyle. All will get more practice reps if Tate is down, Sumlin said.
The game felt a lot like Houston in Week 2, when Tate first hurt his ankle. The Wildcats trailed the Cougars 31-0 at halftime and 38-0 early in the third quarter. The Cats trailed the Utes 28-0 at halftime and 35-0 early in the third.
The Houston game was perceived to be Arizona’s low point. The Wildcats had won three of four since and were at least competitive in a 24-20 loss to USC.
They were outclassed by the Utes (4-2, 2-2) from the get-go. Utah scored touchdowns on four of its first five possessions. Arizona was plagued by poor tackling angles. Even when the Wildcats were in position to stop ball-carriers, they often were overpowered.
Utah converted three third downs on the game’s opening possession, which ended with Tyler Huntley’s 8-yard touchdown pass to Samson Nacua, who defeated Tim Hough on a fade route in the right corner of the end zone.
The Utes finished 5 of 13 on third down but converted their first four, including a third-and-8 on their second drive, which also ended with a touchdown.
“We didn’t get off the field on third down,” UA senior safety Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles said. “If you don’t get a team off the field on third down, you’re not going to win the game, period.”
Huntley threw for two touchdowns, ran for one and caught a TD pass. The latter came on a trick play in the third quarter. Receiver Britain Covey took an end-around pitch. Huntley leaked down the right sideline. Covey hit him in stride for a 58-yard score.
Huntley finished 14 of 19 for 201 yards. He rushed for 64 yards on 11 attempts.
Utah outgained Arizona 495-318 and outrushed the Wildcats 230-72. The Utes were unquestionably the sounder, stronger, more physical squad.
Even when they seemed to get something going, the Cats faltered on fourth down. They were 1 for 5. Three required 2 or fewer yards for a first down.
“That’s definitely really frustrating,” Rodriguez said. “You move the ball down, get a drive going, you want to punch it in.”
Rodriguez wasn’t the only Wildcat who was frustrated. Flannigan-Fowles and linebacker Colin Schooler, the other player representatives in the postgame news conference, were just as dejected. Even cool-customer Sumlin acknowledge that the season’s ups and downs were getting to him.
“Of course I’m frustrated. Our team is too,” Sumlin said.
“It gets back to consistency, which we’ve talked about this whole season. We’ve also talked about third downs.
“Third-down efficiency offensively and defensively has not been where we wanted, and that translated into a situation like tonight.”