The tables were finally turned in Salt Lake City. And it couldn’t have come at a worse time for the University of Arizona football team.
After four straight wins against Utah, including a double-overtime thriller in Tucson last year, the No. 24-ranked Utes (now No. 21) rallied from a 14-3 deficit late in the second quarter of Saturday night’s game to post a 36-23 homecoming victory.
They did it by scoring 26 consecutive points and outscoring the Cats 24-9 in the second half.
That loss is particularly significant since it makes three straight for Arizona and leaves them winless in Pac-12 play, sitting at the bottom of the South Division standings at 0-3. Oregon, in last place in the North Division, is the only other team without a conference win.
For head coach Rich Rodriguez, this was a critical loss in a critical season. This is RichRod’s fifth season in charge of the Wildcat program, a year that normally defines a new head coach because the players he’s working with are all his recruits, not a roster left over from the previous head coach, and he’s had five seasons to develop those players.
After a couple of respectable 8-5 seasons, Rodriguez hit the 10-win plateau in 2014, when that team went 10-4 overall and 7-2 in conference.
But last year was a disappointing 7-6 finish, and this year the Cats are off to a 2-4 start after going 2-2 at home and then dropping back-to-back road games against UCLA and Utah.
Now they have to find a way to rebound from a three-game losing streak and need to win five of their final six games to finish the regular season with a winning record and have any chance of a bowl invite.
And the meat of the schedule is yet to come. They still have to play the top two teams in the South, No. 1 Colorado and No. 2 Arizona State, and North No. 2 Stanford and No. 3 Washington State.
Injuries at the key quarterback position have meant the Cats have had to play part of the last two games using third-string QB Kahlil Tate, a true freshmen getting his first exposure to college game experience.
Last season and six games into this season has been defined by injuries, it seems. Arizona has had more than its share of sidelined talent. A good example of that was the carnage left after the UCLA loss two weeks ago. After that game, there were 28 players on the injury report, 18 of them starters.
But Rodriguez would readily admit that injuries are just part of a physical game and every good program has to be prepared for them. Injuries don’t provide an excuse for a head coach. At the end of the season, it’s just the win-loss record that means anything.
The Wildcats will be back home in the friendly confines of Arizona Stadium for Saturday’s match-up with USC, which is riding a huge wave of momentum after taking down unbeaten ASU and then upsetting North Division leader Colorado.
Saturday’s game is a must-win for the Wildcats. If they can’t find a way to get past the Trojans, they will need to run the table the rest of the way to salvage a winning season – which would be the first for Rodriguez since coming to Tucson.
(Photo: Utah Athletics)