Arizona's young defense gives 'Cats more than they bargained for

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Simon Asher | The Daily Wildcat

A pile-up of Arizona defenders smother a Utah player during the UA-Utah game in Arizona Stadium on Sept. 22, 2017.

The Arizona Wildcats are one of the youngest teams in the country with over sixty true and redshirt freshmen dotting the roster. A team must learn how to win, and unfortunately, the way most accomplish that is by losing. On Friday, the Wildcats learned a valuable lesson about letting a victory slip away. The Utah Utes gave the young ‘Cats an opportunity to steal an important conference win. However, turnovers and inefficient play doomed Arizona. The 30-24 defeat left a sour taste in the mouth of head coach Rich Rodriguez and the rest of the Wildcat program, as evidenced by the tense post-game press conference.

Arizona was unable to overcome a rash of ill-timed turnovers. The ‘Cats left points on the field, and worse yet gave the Utes additional opportunities to score. Arizona committed five turnovers, with quarterback Brandon Dawkins accounting for four. The athletic signal caller was ineffective through the air, missing multiple throws, and tossing careless interceptions. Dawkins was more than inaccurate, he showed little understanding of basic passing concepts.

Dawkins’ struggles went beyond inaccuracy and missed opportunities, he made mistakes that led directly to Ute scores. With the ‘Cats buried deep in their own territory, and facing third down, Dawkins made a throw that an experienced signal caller shouldn’t. The resulting interception and touchdown put the Utes in firm control of the contest. Dawkins had a chance to redeem himself late after the Wildcats pulled to within six, but committed two turnovers in the final three minutes. Arizona’s offensive failures weren’t solely on the embattled quarterback. Tailback Nick Wilson dropped a likely touchdown pass, and J.J. Taylor fumbled deep in Utah territory.

It wasn’t just the quarterback position that struggled, Arizona special teams failed to execute as well. The ‘Cats had two field goals blocked, including one that would have tied the contest heading into halftime. In his post-game comments, Rodriguez remarked that the kicks were low and a couple of snaps were off. While that may have been the case, for the ‘Cats to leave six points on the field may have been the difference between victory and defeat.

Marcel Yates’ defense performed well. Despite being hamstrung by inexperience, the ‘Cats were able to keep the dangerous Utes offense in check. Linebackers Colin Schooler and Tony Fields combined to make 14 tackles. Arizona forced two fumbles, and held dangerous receiver Darren Carrington to his lowest yardage output of the year. The ‘Cats were aggressive and physical, traits noted by both Schooler and Fields. In fact, Fields’ rough play changed the tenor of the contest. With Utah seemingly in control of the game, Fields sacked Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley. Huntley left the game with a shoulder injury and backup Troy Williams entered the fray. Williams was unable to build upon Huntley’s early success, and Arizona stayed within striking distance as a result. Fields remarked after the game that his hit was a momentum changer, and it was. The physicality shown by the ‘Cats makes them far more dangerous than the 2016 version. Arizona’s defense has developed at a significant rate as young players have thrived in the desert.

The Wildcats desperately needed a signature win, and Utah did everything they could to make that happen. Arizona failed not because of effort, but because of execution. This team will have two weeks to brood over this loss, as they have an open date.


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