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Wildcat coach: Team has improved

Nearly coming back from 17 points down on the road, despite four turnovers, against a team that has now won 17 straight games, no, second-year Arizona Wildcats' coach Mike Stoops wasn't discouraged at starting off the 2005 season with a loss.

Disappointed, yes, at falling 27-24 Friday night to the University of Utah at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

But, said Stoops, "I don't think there's any question we're an improved team."

And when your club has been picked in the preseason poll to finish eighth in the Pac 10 after a 3-8 2004 campaign, light at the end of the tunnel is appealing.

Especially when injuries hurt your defense on the edges when you're hoping to pressure an inexperienced Ute quarterback and a promising junior-college transfer receiver who was supposed to start wasn't in the area — he wasn't injured and wasn't disciplined by the team Stoops said vaguely.

"Just didn't make quite enough plays," Stoops lamented.

After Utah held a 27-10 lead on Eric Weddle's 24-yard interception return with 3:46 left in the third quarter, Wildcat quarterback Richard Kovalcheck and company launched two touchdown drives and got to the Ute 42-yard line with more than three minutes left to have Utah squirming a bit.

The drive ran out with an incomplete pass and a punt, but the Utes had to punt, too, with 2:48 left.

With the 'Cats trying to make their way out of their red zone, Ute Casey Evans intercepted a first-down pass at the Arizona 21 to give Utah the chance to run out the rest of the game.

"I wish we'd have done some things better, but (I liked) the way our kids came back in the second half and handled things well," said Stoops.

"Our mechanics got a lot better offensively, and we started to get some rhythm and really did some awfully good things."

Kovalcheck, replaced by design in the second quarter by Adam Austin, returned in the second half and immediately launched a scoring drive. He finished with a career-best game, 21-for-37 for 255 yards passing, though the interceptions were his.

"I'm happy with a lot of things, but the turnovers, giving them seven points, the run defense, it's not good," said Stoops, looking at Utah's 226 yards on the ground, including what he considered an important 18 of them by quarterback Brian Johnson, making his first start.

"It's unacceptable in our eyes," Stoops said. "If you want to win games, you have to play better defense, and you can't turn the ball over and give points away. We're not good enough for that. We have to play close to the vest."

Running back Mike Bell gained 99 yards on 18 carries, but an Arizona team known for a three-pronged rushing attack gained 287 yards through the air to 104 on the ground.

Arizona managed the first lead against Utah in six games (26 quarters) when Nick Folk kicked a 35-yard field goal at 14:16 of the second quarter, but the 3-0 advantage might have been better if a third-and-5 pass from Kovalcheck hadn't sailed way high over heralded freshman receiver Michael Thomas the play before.

Kovalcheck redeemed himself to start the second half, throwing 29 yards on the third play to Syndric Steptoe to open some daylight in Utah's defense and surviving back-to-back illegal motion penalties to throw 13 yards to a wide open Thomas in the right side of the end zone for a 10-10 tie.

But the Utes scored even quicker when the Wildcat defense couldn't contain a 59-yard second-down run by Brent Casteel 1:02 later, and Utah added a 45-yard field goal following a Chris Henry fumble lost at the scrimmage line (Arizona 49) just 1:22 after the touchdown for a 20-10 advantage

Kovalcheck didn't quit, though, and engineered a 69-yard drive for a 21-yard scoring pass to tight end Brad Wood with two seconds left in the third quarter to make Utah's lead 10 again, 27-17. He threw passes of 11, 6, 4, 8, 14 and 21 yards and converted a quarterback sneak for a first down on the drive.