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‘All happened in a blink of an eye’: Arizona’s 28-0 first quarter too much for Utah to overcome

The Wildcats romped over the Utes to open the game, scoring 28 unanswered points in a little over one quarter in a 42-18 win

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Arizona safety Dalton Johnson (43) sacks Utah quarterback Bryson Barnes during a game, Saturday, Nov. 18, 2023.

Arizona safety Dalton Johnson (43) sacks Utah quarterback Bryson Barnes during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 18, 2023, in Tucson, Ariz.

Rick Scuteri, Associated Press

TUCSON — Utah’s 28-0 deficit at Arizona happened quickly.

After marching down the field on the first series of the game, Arizona quarterback Noah Fifita passed the ball laterally to wide receiver Tetairoa McMillan, who threw it 21 yards across the field to Michael Wiley, who had no one around him in the corner of the end zone for the Wildcats’ first touchdown.

The play was executed perfectly, and it completely fooled Utah’s defense.

The Utes went three-and-out on their first drive of the game, and Jack Bouwmeester and the punt team came onto the field.

Two seasons ago at Arizona Stadium, Utah had a punt blocked for a touchdown, which brought the Wildcats within two points early in the fourth quarter. In that game, the Utes responded with an eight-minute drive for a touchdown, then an Arizona four-and-out to win.

On this Saturday in the desert, Arizona’s Anthony Ward breezed by Michael Mokofisi, who whiffed on his block, got his hand on the punt and returned it for a touchdown.

“Statistically, you get a punt blocked, you have an 80% chance of losing the game,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said.

Down 14-0 quickly, the Utes tried to regroup and rally on the sideline and forget about the blocked punt, just like the 2021 team had done.

“I think our guys are good at just rallying around each other and just always looking up, always keeping a positive mindset, positive talk on the sideline because yeah, we know that adversity was going to hit and it happened to hit pretty early today, but I think our sideline and our team, they were really good at just picking each other up,” linebacker Levani Damuni said.

Unlike two years ago, Utah turned in a poor defensive performance following the blocked punt touchdown return.

The Utes were outscored 28-0 in the first quarter (plus the first play of the second quarter) and outgained 227-23 on offense over that same time period.

When Arizona’s wide receivers have more passing yards than Utah quarterback Bryson Barnes after one quarter, you know things aren’t going well.

Utah’s slow start resulted in a 42-18 beatdown in Tucson that dropped the Utes to 7-4 (4-4 Pac-12). Saturday marked the first time all season that Utah has lost consecutive games.

The Utes were missing three starters on defense — defensive end Jonah Elliss, linebacker Karene Reid and safety Cole Bishop, three of Utah’s most impactful players on defense — along with linebacker Lander Barton and defensive end Logan Fano, who are out for the season.

Postgame, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said that Elliss is out for the season, while Reid is “pretty banged up” but may be able to play in a bowl game. The Utes hope to have Bishop available to play next week against Colorado, he said.

“Those are three really good defenders,” Whittingham said.

Missing those players was a big loss for Utah, but the Utes preach “next man up,” and their replacements, defensive end Van Fillinger, safety Nate Ritchie and linebacker Justin Medlock, are more than capable of playing well.

What followed that blocked punt was a collapse by Utah’s defense, and the Utes found themselves down 28-0 after just over 15 minutes of gameplay.

Utah offered no resistance on the Wildcats’ next series after the block, a six-play, 80-yard scoring drive that ended with a 32-yard Fifita to Montana Lemonious-Craig touchdown on a screen pass, something the Utes had a lot of trouble with in the first period of play, aided by a key Jacob Cowing block.

“They just had numbers on us outside and yeah, it was just a good play call,” linebacker Levani Damuni said.

After yet another fruitless offensive series — a three-and-out punctuated by a quarterback keeper from Barnes that went nowhere — Arizona once again had the ball back, and the Wildcats were smelling blood in the water.

Fifita, who had plenty of time in the pocket, had a couple of nice throws to advance the Wildcats to around midfield.

On third-and-6 from the Utah 47-yard line, Fifita got the ball out fast and connected with McMillan for a key first down. On the next play, Arizona offensive coordinator Brennan Carroll dialed up the play Utah had been unable to stop — the screen pass.

This time, it was Fifita to Wiley, who had a convoy of blockers, running untouched into the end zone for a 31-yard touchdown.

“We weren’t getting off blocks. Their wide receivers did an exceptional job blocking in space and being physical and we did not do a good enough job matching that physicality of their wide receivers,” Whittingham said.

Just like that, it was 28-0 Arizona on the very first play of the second quarter. The early 28-point deficit proved to be too much for Utah to overcome.

“It’s really tough to win a football game when you go down 28-zip. That’s a lot to overcome. That all happened in a blink of an eye,” Whittingham said.

Utah’s defense settled in somewhat after getting rocked to start the game.

Arizona went four consecutive possessions without scoring after the first-quarter flurry. Two of those stops were punts forced by the Utah defense, and the other two were missed field goals — a 37-yard attempt blocked by Connor O’Toole (Saturday was his second game in a row with a blocked field goal) and a missed 50-yard attempt.

After three straight punts and a Barnes interception to open the game, Utah’s offense got it together on a 92-yard touchdown drive that featured back-to-back completions to Devaughn Vele for big gains to move the chains twice, then an impressive diving grab by Vele for a 20-yard touchdown.

Cole Becker made a 36-yard field goal on the opening series in the second half, and despite all of the adversity the team faced in the first quarter, they were down 18 with 25 minutes remaining.

But aside from a garbage-time touchdown, Utah didn’t score after the Becker field goal that went through the uprights with 10 minutes remaining in the third quarter.

With Utah down 28 early on and the clock against them, Barnes was called upon to throw the ball 53 times to try and lead the comeback effort.

The Utes couldn’t lean on their run game, handing it off to a running back only 16 times the whole game. Utah did finish with 133 yards on the ground, but 59 yards of that (on 19 attempts) were from Barnes, either on designed quarterback runs or scrambles.

Barnes, who was sensational in the first half of the Washington game, was not getting it done on Saturday. The junior quarterback finished 31 of 53 for 320 yards and two touchdowns (one came in garbage time) with two ill-advised interceptions.

For the fourth game in a row, Vele was productive — nine catches for 111 yards and a touchdown — but three of those games have ended in losses. Postgame, Vele said while he’s put up some good stats, he’d rather catch one pass for five yards and have Utah win.

Fifita was 22 for 30, completing 73% of his passes, for 253 yards and two touchdowns. Wiley was sensational, catching five passes for 68 yards and two touchdowns. McMillan threw a touchdown pass and caught eight passes for 116 yards and a score.

That McMillan touchdown reception came with Arizona up 35-18 with less than a minute left. Utah had just scored and kicked an onside kick (recovered by the Wildcats), but had exhausted its timeouts. Theoretically, Arizona could have kneeled out the clock, but opted to give quarterback Jayden de Laura — who began the season as the starting quarterback, but has been Fifita’s backup after suffering an injury in Week 5 — some shine in Arizona’s last home game.

De Laura threw a 51-yard touchdown bomb to McMillan with 41 seconds left to cap off the game, but Whittingham didn’t take offense to it postgame.

“They weren’t in victory formation and so just expected that it was going to be an offensive play and shoot. That’s their prerogative to be able to call whatever they want. It’s our job to defend. So got no problem with that at all. If that’s the play they want to run, then we got to defend it,” Whittingham said.