The Arizona Wildcats had every opportunity to upend No. 23 Utah on Friday night.
The Wildcats hung with the favored Utes well into the second half. Arizona had multiple chances to score and change the game.
The Wildcats squandered far too many of them.
Critical mistakes submarined Arizona’s upset bid. The Wildcats fell to the Utes 30-24 in front of an announced crowd of 36,651 at Arizona Stadium.
Arizona fell to 2-2, 0-1 in Pac-12. Utah improved to 4-0, 1-0.
The Wildcats had hoped to make a statement in their conference opener in front of a national TV audience. It was riddled with miscues.
A fumble in the red zone. Two missed field goals. A pick-six. A sure touchdown that the quarterback didn’t see. A probable TD that the running back couldn’t catch. A fumble after recovering an onside kick.
“Unfortunate,” UA coach Rich Rodriguez said. “I’m proud of their effort. A lot of mistakes that we made we can fix. I still feel we can compete in the conference for a championship.
“It was frustrating.”
After trimming its deficit to three points with 4:38 left in the third quarter, Arizona made what turned out to be a fatal mistake. On third-and-3 from the UA 12, Brandon Dawkins forced a pass toward Shun Brown. Utah defensive back Javelin Guidry intercepted it at the 14 and returned it for a touchdown.
It was Dawkins’ second interception of the night, and it gave Utah a 27-17 lead.
Undaunted, the Wildcats drove from their 25 to the Utes’ 25. On fourth-and-1, Dawkins rolled to his right. Tight end Trevor Wood was uncovered in the middle of the field. But Dawkins didn’t see him. Under pressure, Dawkins threw incomplete near the right sideline.
The defense, which did enough for Arizona to win, forced a three-and-out on the next series. The Wildcats again advanced into Utes territory. On second-and-12, Dawkins rolled to his right. Tailback Nick Wilson leaked out to the left. The ball hit Wilson in the chest, but he couldn’t come down with it. Two plays later, the Utes blocked Lucas Havrisik’s 47-yard field-goal attempt.
A Matt Gay field goal bumped Utah’s lead to 30-17 with 4:58 remaining. Arizona answered with a seven-play, 75-yard touchdown drive, capped by Dawkins’ 30-yard strike to Tony Ellison with 2:44 left.
Down three and holding all three timeouts, the Wildcats did not need to try an onside kick. They did anyway … and recovered it. Shawn Poindexter fell on Josh Pollack’s bounding boot, setting up Arizona at the Utah 35.
But on the very next play, Dawkins fumbled at the end of a 15-yard run. Casey Hughes forced it. Chris Hart recovered it.
The defense forced another three-and-out. The Wildcats got the ball back at their 25 with 2:07 left. But on third down, Dawkins threw his third interception. It was Arizona’s fifth turnover of the night.
The UA defense wasn’t immune from breaking down.
Trailing 13-10 at halftime, Arizona had a chance to get the ball back down three – or, at worst, six. But on third-and-18 from the UA 39-yard line, Troy Williams, in for the injured Tyler Huntley, connected with Demari Simpkins for 37 yards. Simpkins caught the ball between two Arizona defensive backs.
Two plays later, Williams scored from the 1 to give Utah a 20-10 lead.
As they did after falling behind by 10 points in the first half, the Wildcats responded. Dawkins hit Tyrell Johnson for 32 yards on third-and-1. After a targeting foul on Utah safety Marquise Blair, who hit Dawkins in the head on a 1-yard run, J.J. Taylor scored from the 7 to make it 20-17.
All week long, the focal point for Arizona’s defense was slowing down the dynamic Huntley. The Wildcats figured out a way in the second quarter – by knocking him out of the game.
On second-and-2 from the Utah 33, Huntley rolled to his right. Arizona freshman linebacker Tony Fields II chased him down and drove him into the turf. Huntley had completed 8 of 9 passes for 98 yards and a touchdown up to that point, helping Utah to a 10-3 lead.
Utah surprised many when it named Huntley the starter over incumbent Williams. More qualified than most Pac-12 backups, Williams entered the game and immediately made an impact. His 40-yard pass to Darren Carrington II on third-and-9 advanced Utah to the Arizona 26-yard line.
The Utes eventually reached the 3. But a penalty, an overturned touchdown and Jace Whittaker’s defense on a third-down pass kept the Utes out of the end zone. Matt Gay’s 26-yard field goal, his second of the game, gave Utah a 13-3 lead with 5:39 left in the first half.
Arizona answered with its best drive of the night. Brown started it with a 22-yard run on an end-around. Dawkins connected with Ellison for 24 yards on third-and-6. Dawkins finished it with a 1-yard keeper to make the score 13-10.
The Wildcats had a chance to tie the score at the end of the first half after recovering a fumble at the Utes’ 26-yard line with 11 seconds to play. But a low snap led to a low kick; Pollack’s 43-yard field-goal attempt landed well short of the crossbar.
Arizona’s defense put up little, if any, resistance on Utah’s first drive. The Utes went 73 yards in six plays to take a 7-0 lead. Three of Utah’s first five plays gained first downs. The sixth resulted in a touchdown – an 8-yard pass from Huntley to Samson Nacua.