TUCSON, Ariz. — A quick glance at the Arizona schedule before the season likely would have most expecting three certain wins (Northern Arizona, UNLV and UT-San Antonio) and three games immediately afterward that looked like possible wins (Washington, USC, Utah) if the Wildcats played well enough.
Well, here we are at the end of that second stretch of the schedule, and Arizona is 3-2 overall, 0-2 in the Pac-12 South and on a two-game losing streak after struggling in various aspects in consecutive road defeats. Whether the Wildcats come out of this stretch thinking 6-2 — road games against Pac-12 cellar dweller Colorado and rebuilding California lie ahead — or sitting at .500 depends on this week, when they host Utah.
Arizona is a four-point favorite, but this game suddenly has a little more teeth to it than it might have appeared before the season, as Utah (4-2, 1-2 Pac-12) is coming off a surprising upset of Stanford, a major win for a program that has struggled a bit since joining the Pac-12. The Utes’ lone losses this year are in overtime to Oregon State and by a touchdown to ninth-ranked UCLA.
That said, the Wildcats are focusing on themselves this week.
“It’s probably what fans and the media uses (to look at the season), but I’d like to think they are all winnable,” Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said of guessing wins and losses on the schedule. “Yes, it might sound like coachspeak, but if we play well for four quarters, we can win every game. But if we don’t play well, we won’t.”
The Cats have demonstrated as much the last couple of games. They hung in with Washington but clearly weren’t as good, with the passing game in particular being a weak spot, in a 31-13 loss. In last week’s game at USC, Arizona looked overmatched for more than a half, particularly on defense, and then came back to make a game of it in a 38-31 defeat, giving the Wildcats hope that they can at least go toe to toe with a talented team such as USC (although it’s still debatable just how good the Trojans are).
But will the two losses linger? Some coaches believe that in a 12-game season, every game needs to be considered a season in an of itself, as one cannot influence the next. Does Rodriguez believe in that philosophy?
“I’d like to hope they take that approach,” he said. “I’m not one who looks at the end result. I’m one who looks at the next play and the process and ramifications from every game.”
So he’s moved on from last week’s game, one in which Arizona gave itself a chance, if ever so slight, after being down 28-10 at halftime. The Wildcats finally found their passing game and controlled play for much of the fourth quarter, but they’d been their own worst enemy up until that point, failing to tackle, cover wide receivers or execute consistently on offense.
“We’re not good enough to play poorly and win, and I’ve been on teams where you could play poorly and still win,” Rodriguez said. “You have talent at certain positions and can squeak it out. Right now, we’re not talented enough or good enough to win. That’s just where we are at.”
To the team’s credit, Rodriguez said, this week has been a good one in practice. Tuesday’s practice was very good, he said, and Wednesday’s may have been even better.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said he was hoping for the same thing he received last week: a great week of practice and a maintained focus, which is sometimes a challenge after a big win.
Additionally, while Utah had the benefit of playing Stanford at home last week, the trip to Tucson will be the Utes’ first out of state this season. And while the level of competition will be a bit different this week, Arizona is 2-0 at home this year.
“I think there is a little concern for the players that have never done that,” Whittingham said of playing on the road for the first time.
“I don’t think it matters when that happens during the course of the season. I don’t think that’s relevant, but our guys that have never been on a Division I road trip, which there’s quite a few guys on this team that will be in that category, it’s important that they handle themselves the right way and understand how we operate. I think that’s the bigger issue than the timing of it.”