PHOENIX — For all the fits and starts, and there were plenty, Arizona showed resilience Saturday.
In the end, however, the Wildcats could not get a stop when they needed it, and they woke up to a bitter cup Sunday morning after an 18-16 loss to Brigham Young in the first Cactus Kickoff Classic on Saturday night.
Defense was a trouble spot a year ago, especially after the injury to linebacker Scooby Wright, and head coach Rick Rodriguez made a scheme change in the offseason. But change takes time.
A grade on the first showing? Incomplete.
The Wildcats gave up 35.8 points and 468 yards a game while going 7-6 with a bowl victory over New Mexico a year ago, so the effort against a BYU team that seems able to run as well as it passes could be considered progress. BYU had 415 yards.
At the same time, after Nick Wilson gave the Wildcats their only lead of the game (16-15) on a 49-yard touchdown run up the middle with 1:26 remaining, the Wildcats simply could not close the deal.
Wilson’s score, his second of the fourth quarter, enabled Arizona to come all the way back from a 15-3 deficit, but a missed 2-point conversion gave the Cougars a sniff at a win the easier way, via field goal.
BYU ran nine plays in 74 seconds before Jake Oldroyd’s semi-chip shot from 33 yards won the game.
The Cougars set up the kick with four first downs, two on Taysom Hill passes and two on Jamaal Williams runs, while moving the ball to the Arizona 6-yard line. A false start penalty gave the UA some false hope — the 10-second runoff mandated in the rules would have ended the game — but BYU had a timeout, and that negated the runoff.
After Arizona took an ice-the-kicker timeout, Oldroyd won it.
Williams, who is 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, had a career-high 162 yards rushing and a 5.6 average per carry. Hill completed 21-of-29 passes and threw a touchdown pass. He is 6-foot-2 and 235 pounds.
Rodriguez did not seem displeased with his defense while allowing there was some work to do. The Wildcats’ starting front in their new 3-4 scheme weigh 247, 247 and 271 pounds, the lightest among all 128 FBS schools, according to research by ESPN. BYU’s offensive line averages 308 pounds.
“I thought they played well enough for the majority of the game,” he said.
“We played a new scheme and we are a little undersized, of course. They gave us a chance to win the game. There were still a lot of things out there that we could fix. The tackling was poor. I’m concerned about that and that is usually a concern when you are playing a really good, big running back. You worry about tackling and a couple things, but they played hard. We played hard.”
It has not been an easy fall for Arizona, which was playing less than a month after starting center Zach Hemmila, 22, was found dead in his Tucson apartment of unknown causes. In a pregame ceremony, Arizona presented Hemmila’s parents with a framed No. 65 jersey in honor of their son.
BYU will hardly be the stiffest test on Arizona’s schedule. The Wildcats miss Oregon and Cal, two teams never afraid to put the ball in play, but Pac-12 play begins in three weeks with Washington, UCLA and Utah, the last two on the road. Stanford follows USC in a five-game stretch that could be decisive.
The size mismatch evidenced in the BYU game will be accentuated in conference play, and because of that Arizona will need all the help it can get from an offense that did not find its rhythm until the fourth quarter Saturday.
Anu Solomon was 20-of-30 for 213 yards, but almost all of the yardage came on little short pass-and-runs that are the staple of Rodriguez’s offense, which averaged 495 yards a game last year. He threw two interceptions. The scheme sometimes leaves Solomon isolated and vulnerable, and it is hard to imagine that he can avoid enough hits to play a full season. He missed two games and parts of others last year.
Solomon said the loss “is on me.”
“I got to step it up. We need to get better and play better. Hopefully this loss will make the team become close and hopefully win out this season.”
Wilson, who had 70 of his 138 yards in the fourth quarter, finished with 17 carries, only two fewer than he had in his final seven games last year while dealing with foot and knee injuries. He was shaken up on a run in the third quarter and walked off the field with training staff before returning in the fourth.
“I feel good, I feel healthy, I feel great,” Wilson said. “But I would trade all of that for the ‘W.’”