There’s no other way to say it: the Arizona Wildcats played their worst game of the 2018 season on Friday night. And that’s saying something after what happened in Houston a little more than a month ago.
The Wildcats were facing an uphill battle by playing on the road, on a short week, against a Utah Utes team that had just blown out Stanford on the road. That was evident in the large point spread, which wavered between Utah being favored by 13.5 and 14.5 points.
But despite all the signs pointing toward Arizona being in for a long night, it was hard not to think the defensive effort from last week’s win over the California Golden Bears. Then the game actually began and within a few minutes it was clear the Wildcats were outmatched.
Here’s what we learned about Arizona, other than that this team was massively overrated entering the season, along the way:
The offensive playbook might as well be a dartboard
Remember a few years back when, during Arizona’s spring game, then-head coach Rich Rodriguez went into the crowd at Arizona Stadium and picked fans at random to call plays?
There’s a non-zero chance that approach might produce more offense than what the Wildcats are getting right now.
Noel Mazzone is Arizona’s offensive coordinator, a job he landed because of his past work with Kevin Sumlin as well as success at numerous stops along the way. When his tenure in Tucson is over—and that figures to be sooner rather than later—this season isn’t going to be heavily mentioned on his resume.
Arizona gained 318 yards against Utah, with 124 of that coming in the fourth quarter with the game long-ago decided. That comes a week after managing just 265 yards against Cal, the Wildcats’ fewest in a win in nearly nine years.
The Wildcats averaged 4.13 yards per play, tied for the worst rate (along with last year’s 48-28 loss at Oregon) since gaining 3.84 yards per play in a 49-3 loss at Washington on Halloween 2015.
Utah’s defense had a lot to do with the Wildcats’ lack of production, plugging most of the run holes and demolishing the line on pass blocking, but the Utes were also aided by yet another round of odd play calls at strange moments.
So, to recap: Arizona ran it up the middle on 3rd and 11 one drive and then threw deep on 4th and 1 the next drive.— Brian Pedersen (@realBJP) October 13, 2018
Without crunching the numbers, Arizona’s tendency to run on third-and-long and throw on third-and-short has to be way off the norms. And it’s not like the zig-when-everyone-expects-you-to-zag approach has worked; the Wildcats were 6 of 18 on third down against Utah and for the season are converting just 38 percent of their third downs.
RhettRod deserves to start at UCLA
On an otherwise horrible night for the offense, sophomore quarterback Rhett Rodriguez was a notable exception.
Inserted as Arizona’s third QB, after Khalil Tate played the first two series (he appeared to re-injure his left ankle on a sack) and Jamarye Joiner the next two, the son of ex-UA coach Rich Rodriguez got his first game action since the final minutes of the Oregon State game in Week 4.
And boy did he make the most of it. So much so that, unless Tate’s ankle is suddenly 100 percent and he’s taken a mental time machine back to October 2017, RhettRod should get the start next week when Arizona plays at winless UCLA.
Rodriguez, despite playing behind a line that seemed incapable of holding a block for more than a second, was 20 of 38 for 226 yards and his first career touchdown pass on a 42-yard throw to Cedric Peterson in the fourth quarter.
What does Arizona have to lose, really?
Can’t make stops if you can’t tackle
If, for some sadistic reason you created a drinking game that called for taking a shot every time Arizona’s defense had a missed tackle, then you’re likely reading this from a hospital room. Save some jello for me.
Arizona was officially credited with 65 tackles against Utah. The number the Wildcats missed: almost as many, and quite often in situations that would have resulted in a loss of yardage or prevented a first down.
Whether it was not wrapping up, getting faked out in the open field, going for the ball instead of the takedown or some combination of all three, on countless occasions Arizona had the Utah ball carrier dead to rights only for him to end up several yards further downfield.
A rule of thumb: when the opponent runs the ball more than two-thirds of the time, and your top three tackle counts are by defensive backs, there’s a tackling issue.
Since we don’t get to see practices we don’t know how much, if any, tackling Arizona does in practice. Whatever amount it’s doing is not enough.
Yes, the Wildcats were beat over the top on a few pass plays and Utah’s offensive line created some big running lanes. But there were plenty of times that Arizona had a shot to make the play and its inability to do so made a huge difference.