But the Wildcats turned the ball over five times and had several other miscues, preventing them from coming away with the upset.
Here are some takeaways from that game:
The defense seems legit, at least
Let’s start with something positive. There are things to be excited about on the defensive side of the ball.
Arizona held Utah (albeit the Utes were using their backup QB for three quarters) to just 341 yards and a 2-for-10 conversion rate on third down. Plus, they forced two turnovers.
The best part for Arizona is its young players, players who the team can build around in the future, are making major impacts.
True freshmen Colin Schooler, Tony Fields II, Scottie Young Jr., and Kylan Wilborn have all had impressive seasons so far and continued their success Friday vs. Utah.
Schooler had eight tackles (two for loss), Fields had another sack, and Wilborn forced another fumble off the edge.
Young tallied six tackles, and was ranked as the No. 7 freshman in college football by Pro Football Focus heading into the game.
And despite working several freshmen into the rotation on defense, the Wildcats have been able to slow down the two best offenses they’ve faced so far (Houston and Utah), and, most importantly, keep Arizona in the game.
One crazy stat is that in the last three games, Arizona’s defense has allowed just three total fourth-quarter points. Perhaps even crazier is they’ve lost two of those games, as the offense hasn’t held up its end of the bargain.
That’s basically the opposite of what people thought would happen this season, which is both good and bad.
Sure, the offense has floundered and might not be fixable (we’ll get to that in a second), but at least Arizona has some legit pieces to build around on defense moving forward.
A QB change is probably for the best, because what’s there to lose?
One edge Brandon Dawkins had over Khalil Tate for the starting quarterback job is he generally does a good job of taking care of the football.
The key word is “had.”
Dawkins only turned the ball over seven times in 10 games last year. This year, he’s committed five turnovers in just four games.
Dawkins is seen as the safer and more disciplined option at quarterback compared to Tate, who can be reckless and unpredictable, but that doesn’t seem to be true anymore.
If turnovers between the quarterbacks are going to be equal — Tate did throw a costly interception in his season debut vs. Houston — Tate is a better option, since he could offer a more dynamic passing game with only a slight drop off on the ground.
And it’s now difficult to argue against the notion that Tate, a former four-star recruit, has higher upside than Dawkins.
Dawkins hasn’t improved (if anything he’s regressed) since taking over as UA’s starting quarterback, where as Tate really hasn’t had a fair opportunity to showcase his skills in a game environment.
What he did (or didn’t do) last year as a 17-year-old true freshman shouldn’t be used against him at this point, and the only time he played this year was when he was inserted late in the game against Houston, which is hardly a recipe for success.
It’s funny because this is almost the same predicament Arizona was in last year. Anu Solomon, the starter out of fall camp, continued his regression and Dawkins was seen as the high upside play. But now it appears Dawkins has hit his proverbial ceiling, so Arizona should go ahead and roll the dice with Tate.
But will it actually happen? Who knows. For one, we don’t even know if Tate is healthy. He injured his shoulder against NAU and while he did play against Houston a week later, he did not play vs. UTEP last week, despite UA using three quarterbacks in that game.
Rich Rodriguez said Tate was good to go vs. Utah, but what exactly does that mean? Is he just healthy enough to play or is he 100 percent? That obviously matters.
Secondly, though, Rodriguez has never seemed to be high on Tate. He pulled Tate in the Houston game after an interception even though Tate was moving UA’s offense pretty well before that.
Dawkins usually gets a longer leash, and that’s probably because Rodriguez trusts him with the offense more (to be fair, Tate’s knowledge of the playbook was limited last year).
But Rodriguez’s trust in Dawkins doesn’t seem warranted anymore, given the way the redshirt junior has played this season, and it does sound like Rodriguez is losing his faith.
“He was doing good, then he would make a mistake. He competes. He’s trying,” Rodriguez said after the Utah game.
“He can execute better, trust the timing of the routes, and trust the patterns that we run. Sometimes, protection broke down a little bit, too, so it’s not always the quarterback. There is a lot on his plate at times.”
Here are Dawkins’ numbers against Houston and Utah (the two decent teams Arizona has faced this year).
- Passing — 41-for-71 (57.7%) for 426 yards. One touchdown. Three interceptions.
- Rushing — 31 carries for 116 yards and a touchdown. Two fumbles lost.
Tate might not be able to do better than that, but it’s hard to imagine he’d perform worse.
Lack of talent can’t be mixed with stupid mistakes
When you’re Arizona and every Pac-12 team (besides maybe Oregon State) will be more talented than you this season, you have to limit silly mistakes.
Arizona certainly did not do that vs. Utah.
The list of miscues was laughable (and I’m sure I’m forgetting some):
- Brandon Dawkins pick-six (plus three other turnovers)
- Two blocked field goals
- Nick Wilson drops would-be TD while wide open on wheel route
- Dawkins doesn’t see a wide open Trevor Wood for a would-be TD
- Lucas Havrisik ’s kickoff goes out of bounds
- J.J. Taylor fumbles on the Utah 10-yard line
Arizona’s margin for error is just too thin for gaffes like that.
Frustratingly, the Wildcats are only a few plays away from being 4-0 and the program having a completely different outlook (just like last year’s losses to BYU and Washington).
Having a dearth of talent is uncontrollable once the season begins, but lacking attention to detail is not.
And it would be unfair to put all the blame on the coaching, seeing that many of Arizona’s mistakes were simply physical errors (like Wilson’s drop, the poor kicking, etc.).
Fair or not, Rodriguez attributed those mistakes to the team’s youth (Arizona had played the third-most freshmen in the FBS heading into Friday’s game, after all).
“We got a long list of young players,” Rodriguez said. “We’re going to grow up and this will be a learning experience. I’d rather learn by winning. It’s not fun to learn when you’re losing.”
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire