TUCSON, Ariz. — Arizona exhausted the helium from its surprising and soaring run to the 2014 Pac-12 South title — and the descent might not be over.
The Wildcats are 9-9 since winning the South, including a Fiesta Bowl loss to Boise State. This season, Arizona is 2-2 as it takes an injury-plagued team into Saturday night’s game against UCLA at the Rose Bowl.
By the end of last week’s 35-28 overtime loss to Washington, Arizona was down to its second-string quarterback, a fourth-string running back and was playing without defensive starters at nose guard, outside linebacker and safety. As of Wednesday, there was no word if any of the No. 1s would be back this week, or anytime soon.
“There is still too much of a gap at certain positions between the No. 1 and No. 2,” coach Rich Rodriguez said. “That’s our job in recruiting, to close that gap.”
Rodriguez has struggled against UCLA, going 0-4 against the Bruins while losing by a combined score of 170-73. UCLA is 2-2 this season, both of its losses coming against top 10 teams, Texas A&M and Stanford.
The schedule stays unfriendly for Arizona. Games at No. 18 Utah, vs. USC, vs. No. 7 Stanford and at Washington State follow this week’s game.
The long-term silver lining is that the Wildcats appear to have found a dynamic young quarterback in redshirt sophomore Brandon Dawkins. He took over in the second game for two-year starter Anu Solomon, who suffered a knee injury in practice after a season-opening 18-16 loss to BYU.
Dawkins accounted for a 56-yard run, a 79-yard touchdown run and a 54-yard pass against Washington. He trails only Louisville’s Lamar Jackson nationally in quarterback rushing with 391 yards.
“He’s hard to defend, because you get him defended and he can still make plays,” Washington coach Chris Petersen said Monday during his weekly press conference. “You think you have angles on him, and he can outrun angles. … He’s a problem. There’s no doubt.”
Dawkins has been solid in the passing game, completing 50 of 81 passes for 625 yards, with three touchdowns and one interception, but he’s in danger of becoming a one-man show.
Starting running back Nick Wilson has missed all but one series of the past two games because of an ankle injury. Orlando Bradford was dismissed after his arrest in a domestic violence case.
And third-string running back J.J. Taylor, a freshman who ran for 168 yards against Grambling State, suffered a broken left ankle late in the third quarter against Washington.
“J.J. was beginning to show everyone how special he is,” Rodriguez said. “We had a lot of plans for our two-tailback sets. Those plans change somewhat. Injuries happen. You don’t want it to all hit at the same position, but it happens. Right now, it stings.”
The Wildcats are also in the midst of a defensive reboot. Rodriguez’s four-man defensive coaching staff is all new, led by coordinator Marcel Yates, who previously held the same position at Boise State.
Early results have been mixed.
Yates’ more aggressive scheme has contributed to nine takeaways in four games but the defense is having a hard time getting off the field, ranking 122 out of 128 teams by allowing opponents to convert 50.9 percent of their third-down chances (29 of 57).
“They’re a scrappy bunch,” Rodriguez said. “We still need to do a lot better job of creating three-and-outs. That’s been the most frustrating thing, particularly when we’re trying to control the tempo and the pace.”