Physical ailment: Arizona's loss to Utah shows biggest weakness

Arizona running back JJ Taylor is tackled by Utah linebacker Cody Barton (30) and defensive tackle Leki Fotu (99).Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Wildcats bow down 42-10 to Utes

You don't usually want to make a judgment after three plays, but that was enough Friday night.

On the third play from scrimmage in the Arizona Wildcats' game at Utah, the Utes needed 5 yards for a first down. Quarterback Tyler Huntley took the shotgun snap and handed off to receiver Britain Covey, who was lined up to the left of the quarterback as a running back.

Covey ran to his right and pitched the ball forward to running back Zack Moss, who caught the pass nine yards short of the first down. Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles came running up from his safety position ... and promptly whiffed on the tackle.

Moss was then hit by safety Jarrius Wallace 4 yards short of the first down. He bounced off that attempt, spun away from another would-be tackler, wormed himself between two more defenders about 2 yards shy of the line and then drove a pile of humanity forward for a 6-yard gain.

Utah was better, tougher, stronger, more determined.

First down.

Arizona was going to lose this game no matter what happened right there on the third play of the game, but it was a hell of a tone setter for what ended up being a 42-10 Utes victory in Salt Lake City. Utah went on to convert two more third-down tries on that drive, scored on fourth-and-goal from the 1 on its next possession ... and just kept taking the Cats to the woodshed.

Utah led 35-0 by early in the third quarter, by which time Arizona was on its third quarterback.

"The first series of the game, they had three third-down-and-long situations that they converted and really set the tone for the rest of the game," UA coach Kevin Sumlin said on WildcatsRadio1290.

Physical. Dominance.

Utah knows what it has been, what it is, what it wants to be. Being strong up front is nothing new for coach Kyle Whittingham's team. It's the Utes' identity -- how they play, how they recruit.

What's Arizona's identity?

There isn't any, and it's been several years at least, to put it kindly, that anybody has answered that question by saying "physical."

Utah is the program Arizona wants to be when it grows up.

The Wildcats (3-4, 2-2 Pac-12) can fake it when playing a team like Southern Utah, or low-level Pac-12 teams such as Oregon State and Cal. In those games, Arizona can come up with some big plays on offense and turnovers on defense, making everything seem OK for a night, but there's no faking it against a physical team like Utah.

In the second half of games this season, Arizona has trailed 28-10 (BYU), 38-0 (Houston), 24-0 (USC) and 35-0 (Utah).

Aren't you glad Arizona doesn't play Stanford and Washington this season?

Whatever you think of coordinator Noel Mazzone's schemes on offense or coordinator's Marcel Yates' plans on defense -- and I'm guessing those thoughts aren't particularly charitable or particularly wrong -- not much good happens without the big dogs up front.

First-year coach Kevin Sumlin was left with a lack of depth on the offensive line (exacerbated by the loss of starting center Nathan Eldridge and a foot injury to left tackle Layth Friekh) and a defensive line that, while finally sporting appropriate size, isn't all that deep, either, or packed with all-stars.

This is why you see Arizona with a lot of scholarship offers out to junior college linemen on both sides; the Cats need help, strength, experience for 2019. But that doesn't do anything to make the 2018 outlook any brighter, with Arizona needing three wins in five games to become bowl eligible.

Elsewhere on Arizona's defense, Utah was running through tackles all night -- just like Moss did on the third play of the game.

"Everybody has got to take ownership and responsibility," Sumlin said in his postgame press conference, talking about his message to the team.

"That starts with me. In situations like this, the little things can turn into big things; details, little things like that. The message was basically that everyone needs to look at themselves first and how they can be better, including me and the coaches, then move on.

"Like earlier in the year, when these situations come up, there's not a lot you can do about this, but you don't want this performance bleeding into the rest of the season. That was the message. We need to fix the things we can, and then continue playing with effort, and put our best people on the field who can give us a chance to win."

There will be much talk this week about the quarterback position -- Khalil Tate's ankle; Rhett Rodriguez's relief appearance -- but whatever happens there won't change the fact that Arizona won't move forward as a program until it gets more physical.

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