Arizona Football

Arizona whiffs against Utah as QB question persists

Brandon Dawkins ran for 90 yards against Utah, but it wasn’t enough. (Photo by Stan Liu/Arizona Athletics)

An interception returned for a touchdown. A missed 43-yard field goal. A field goal attempt that was blocked. A fumble near the Utah goal line.

Not seeing a wide-open receiver on a fourth-down pass.

A wide-open receiver dropping what likely would have been a touchdown pass.

Another fumble with 2:33 to go. An interception with 1:19 left.

And then there was no time left at all, the Arizona Wildcats walking to the locker room, 30-24 losers to No. 23 Utah, death by a thousand cuts, seemingly all of them self-inflicted.

For the second time this season, Arizona, in desperate need to win its “50-50” games to have a successful season and perhaps save coach Rich Rodriguez’s bacon in the process, lost a game in which it didn’t have to be great, didn’t have to make a miracle play, didn’t have to do much more than find a way to not mess up a winnable game.

And yet …

“We competed enough to win,” Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez.

“We just made a few key mistakes. We’re going to watch the film and just be sick over some of the mistakes we made, but also missed opportunities. That probably bothers us as much anything, that we had a touchdown here or a big play here. That’s part of learning and growing and fixing.”

Sure. But the ills from the loss to Houston — not enough winning plays in the passing game — were the ills in the loss to Utah, which played the majority of the game without starting quarterback Tyler Huntley and standout defensive end Kylie Fitts … and still had enough juice to stiff-arm Arizona.

The weight is going to fall on quarterback Brandon Dawkins, who threw three interceptions, lost the late fumble and didn’t see the wide-open Trevor Wood down the middle as he looked to complete a pass on a curl route near the sideline. Sigh.

He still could have ridden off into the Tucson night as a hero if he had engineered a game-winning drive, 75 yards away from paydirt with 2:07 left and no timeouts. Results: Short pass, short pass, interceptions

“My confidence is always high,” Dawkins said about going out for the final drive.

“Nothing really sets me back and I’m never going out there nervous because if one person is, the whole offense will be. My confidence is through the roof no matter what, if we were winning by 100 or losing by 100. I just have to build up the guys and fire them up.”

Rodriguez made no move to replace Dawkins on Saturday night, although that will be the No. 1 topic of discussion as Arizona heads into its bye week in advance of a road game against Colorado. Khalil Tate, come on down? He’s been dealing with a shoulder injury — and isn’t as simpatico with the playbook as Dawkins, it is safe to infer from various comments — but every defeat inches Arizona closer to this: What else do you have to lose?

“He was doing good, then he would make a mistake. He competes. He’s trying,” Rodriguez said of Dawkins.

“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.”

What now?

The Wildcats played well enough to win, outgaining Utah 448 to 341. A young defense — with linebacker Tony Fields II, linebacker Colin Schooler, defensive end Kylan Wellborn and safety Scottie Young Jr., all true freshmen — shows real promise.

But when the Wildcats offense runs into a defense that can slow its running backs, Arizona has a hard time countering with a passing game and winning against legitimate competition.

BRAD ALLIS: Wildcast, Utah postgame

The Cats have won only two of their past 15 conference games, one of those Pac-12 victories coming last season against an Arizona State team that was so laughably bad against the run that Arizona didn’t even attempt a pass in the second half.

Dawkins’ 248 passing yards on Saturday night marked only the second time in the past 10 conference games that Arizona threw for more than 200 yards. In six of those games, UA hasn’t completed 50 percent of its passes. Dawkins topped that with 24 of 42 completions, but that’s nothing to throw a party for in today’s college football, even if you don’t consider the interceptions and missed opportunities.

Can’t pass. Can’t win.

Can you pass to win with Dawkins?

That is the ongoing calculus for Rodriguez and his coaching staff. The right call could save the season, if it’s not already too late. Because, judging by the attendance — 36,651, the lowest at Arizona Stadium in 20 years — too many fans have already checked out on Arizona’s season. Hey, did you know Arizona basketball media day is Wednesday?

“Lots of mistakes that we made we can fix,” Rodriguez said. “I think these guys will take it seriously and to heart. Still feel we can compete in the conference for a championship. A lot of football left.”

Technically, true.

But it can’t be with the same ol’ passing game.

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