Tucson, Ariz- OK, that didn’t go the way the Utes planned it.
At the close of Utah’s late 35-24 loss here at Arizona, the unmistakable sights and sounds of momentum grinding to a halt bent the ears and stung the eyes of a team that had been sharply leaning the other way. On the verge of making more certain their competitive legitimacy in a league that had doubted them, the Utes fell back deep into the Pac-12 well on Saturday night.
They are thrashing in doubts now. Haul them out and hand them a towel. Missed opportunities, missed field goals, missed tackles and mistakes cost them from start to finish against the Wildcats and ultimately doomed them.
Utah football never was going to qualify for the Rose Bowl this season, but it had been setting up shop for that run at belonging. The Utes suffered those two heartbreaks at home and then punched Stanford in the mug. Heading out on the road for the first time in conference was a chance to level the record at 2-2 and buoy a whole lot of newfound confidence.
Kill that. Utah is sinking at 1-3.
Now, next week’s trip to the Coliseum looks shaky and beating Arizona State at Rice-Eccles is anything but sure. And then … Oregon at Autzen? There are so many things a vulnerable football team would rather do, like … play Presbyterian College.
Victory’s formula in the desert, at least part of it, was fairly plain for the Utes: Slow down Ka’Deem Carey by controlling the defensive line of scrimmage and pass the ball effectively — without turnovers — by controlling the offensive line of scrimmage and building a wall of comfort around Travis Wilson.
They did none of that.
Carey picked up 102 rushing yards — in the first half, when the Wildcats took a 20-7 lead. By the end of the second, he had 236. Dialing in on a running back who put more than 200 yards on the Utes a year ago and who had put an average of more than 140 yards on every opponent this season was outside Utah’s defensive limits. It’s now a trend. Kalani Sitake’s D tried to follow the script it always attempts to follow: Stop the run first, stop the run second, stop the run third, and make the other guys punt.
It didn’t work out that way — not often enough.
And when Rich Rodriguez’s spread went to the air to mix things up a bit, that added more chunks of yardage. All told, the Wildcats gained 468 yards to the Utes’ 329.
About that wall of comfort for Wilson, the quarterback looked anything but at ease. In the first half, he threw one pick-six from his own 6-yard line and sparked another Arizona scoring drive with an additional interception. He was replaced near the end of the half because of injury or ineptitude or both.
Wilson continues to live and learn as a Pac-12 QB. On Saturday night, he mostly learned, completing 3 passes on 9 throws for 15 yards. It is that side of the ball that has to catch up with the defense for Utah to balance an effort that has needed its wheels spun and realignment done for three seasons now.
Problem Saturday night was, the Ute D struggled, too.
Adam Schulz, who replaced Wilson, added a spark, taking advantage of a fumbled punt in the third quarter deep in Arizona territory, to cut the Wildcats’ lead to six points. He then hammered a 55-yard nail to Sean Fitzgerald for a touchdown, giving the Utes their first lead.
It wouldn’t hold, though, when Arizona went 63 yards for a touchdown and two-point conversion early in the fourth quarter. The Wildcats then scored again near game’s end. The Utes simply couldn’t — or didn’t — keep up.
And now, doubts have them down.
GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.
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