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Arizona vs. Utah: Three things we learned in the Wildcats’ 36-23 loss to the Utes

Will Arizona win more than one conference game this season?

Arizona v Utah Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats started strong, but couldn’t maintain the early momentum down the stretch as they fell to the Utah Utes 36-23, despite holding a 14-12 lead at halftime.

Here are three things we learned from the game:

Rich Rodriguez downplayed his team’s 0-3 start in Pac-12 play

Heading into the season, we knew things could be rough for the Wildcats at the start of Pac-12 Conference play.

Their first three games were against a highly-regarded Washington team, a UCLA team which has Arizona’s number recently, and an always-tough Utah team.

Winning even one of those games was going to be difficult, let alone multiple games, so now that Arizona has lost all three, it hasn’t put Rodriguez in panic mode.

It did put him in sarcasm mode, though.

“We're probably just going to go down here and, you know, maybe try to hitchhike home and maybe feel sorry for ourselves; and probably just, you know, cancel the season.” he said after the loss to Utah. “That's what I think we ought to do is just cancel the season.”

On a serious note, Rodriguez said nobody’s happy about the 0-3 record, and no one’s going to give up either.

“We lost a couple of games,” he said. “We had a couple of tough ones against some pretty good teams...What do you want me to do, quit? You want me to quit?...Is that what you expect?

“You want those players and coaches in there to quit because we lose a game or two? Come on. These guys are going to fight. We're not used to doing it and nobody's going to be happy. We ain't going to be like 'oh, woe is us.' We're going to get back to work and try to win the next one."

But will the team win the next one? That brings me to my second point...

It will be difficult for Arizona to win multiple conference games

The Wildcats’ Pac-12 schedule only gets easier from here, but when you look around the league, you could argue Arizona is the worst team in the conference.

After all, only one other team in the Pac-12 (Oregon) is winless in conference play.

Even Oregon State, which was selected as the worst team in the Pac-12 before the season began, has won a Pac-12 game, beating Cal 47-44 in Corvallis this weekend.

For that reason, there’s a chance Arizona won’t be favored in a single game for the rest of the season. Going winless in conference play is a realistic possibility.

But given how often weird things happen in the Pac-12 — I mean, there’s a hashtag (#Pac12AfterDark) just for that — it does seem unlikely that the Wildcats finish league play without a win.

But will they win more than just one?

When you take a look at the rest of their schedule (pictured below), it’s tricky to project.

Arizona’s remaining schedule

USC and Stanford are two teams Arizona seemingly hasn’t beaten in forever (maybe that changes if Christian McCaffrey is injured?), and the rest are certainly winnable.

But how winnable? Washington State has played well of late, Colorado is much-improved from previous seasons, beating Oregon State (or any Pac-12 team) on the road won’t be easy, and we all know how much of a coin flip the Territorial Cup game is.

Arizona could be underdogs in all four of those games, so 3-1 seems like the best-case scenario, while 2-2 is a favorable, yet reasonable, outlook.

To me, 1-3 seems the most likely.

We’ve seen Arizona compete against the top teams in the conference like Washington, but we’ve also seen just how poorly they can perform at other times.

Arizona will need complete performances — from an offensive, defensive, and special teams standpoint — to beat a Pac-12 opponent, but how many times will that happen?

Certainly at least once, right? RIGHT!?

Arizona’s offense is a mess

When you think of a Rich Rodriguez-coached team, you think of one that can move the chains and put points on the board on a quick and consistent basis.

That doesn’t come to mind when you think about this Arizona team, though.

The Wildcats have shown flashes of dominance on offense — Brandon Dawkins connecting with Shun Brown for a 75-yard touchdown on the very first play against Utah and Khalil Tate throwing a bomb to Samajie Grant for a 63-yard touchdown come to mind — but in between plays like those is a lot of ugly football.

They don’t run the ball well, their passing game comes and goes, there’s no continuity, and, frankly, not enough depth on the roster to combat the injury bug.

Arizona’s down to its fourth-string and fifth-string running backs — one of which is a converted wide receiver — its offensive line has struggled all season, and its quarterback position has continually been in flux.

It’s a shame too because Arizona’s “woefully undersized” defense, as Rodriguez called it, has done an admirable job of keeping the Wildcats in games.

The thing is, once the offense gets stagnant for long stretches, the defense gets tired, worn down, and eventually breaks.

And it doesn’t look like that’s going to change anytime soon.

Brandon Dawkins suffered a head injury against Utah, putting his status in doubt for Saturday’s game against the USC Trojans. Meanwhile, Anu Solomon doesn’t appear close to returning, and so it could very well be Khalil Tate getting the start.

Tate’s undoubtedly talented — perhaps more so than Solomon or Dawkins — but there’s a reason why the coaching staff wanted to redshirt him. He’s a 17-year-old freshman with a limited grasp of the offense, and expecting him to consistently perform at a high level against Pac-12 defenses is unfair.

And so if Tate does get the start next week, it’s likely going to be another week of sporadic offense for Arizona.

You can follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapireUA