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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


State of the program: Arizona football in the decline after blowout loss at the hands of USC

Carmen Valencia

Arizona linebacker Michael Barton (11) lunges in an attempt to wrap-up USC wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (9) during Arizona’s 48-14 loss to the Trojans at Arizona Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 15. Smith-Schuster finished with nine catches for 132 yards and three touchdowns.

Arizona football was thumped by USC 48-14 on Saturday for Family Weekend. What was expected to be an afternoon of joy with students and parents packed into Arizona Stadium, turned in to three hours of twiddling one’s thumbs.

It was a tale of two entirely different teams coming into the contest, considering the Wildcats were still in the hunt for their first Pac-12 Conference win of the season, while the Trojans were coming off back-to-back wins including a come-from-behind win against Colorado last week.

The biggest difference between the two programs after Saturday, was that USC had found its quarterback in Sam Darnold who threw for 235 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions, while true freshman Khalil Tate struggled for Arizona. Tate became the first true freshman to start at quarterback for the Wildcats since Willie Tuitama in 2005, and Tate displayed every reason why he’s still a project.

Tate completed 7-of-18 passes for 58 yards and was Arizona’s leading rusher with 72 yards. Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez wasn’t pleased with his quarterback, but defended him with Tate’s age as well as USC’s talent level.

“He seemed okay during the week and at the beginning of the game, but there are times a 17-year-old freshman looks like a 17-year-old freshman,” Rodriguez said. “It was a challenge and a lot of the challenge is because they got some pretty good dudes over there.”

Tate was a four-star quarterback prospect coming out of high school for a reason, and running back Zach Green believed this failed experiment of Tate’s lone start as false advertisement.

“I love Khalil—he’s a competitor and I know he’ll bounce back from this,” Green said.

With Tate struggling, Brandon Dawkins out with a concussion, Anu Solomon out with a knee injury and third-string tight end Matt Morin taking in-game reps at quarterback, the season and the state of the program could potentially be at stake.

RELATED: USC pulled the plug on Arizona football’s life support

“I don’t know what our quarterback situation is going forward, but we have at least two weeks now to figure something out,” Rodriguez said.

The quarterback situation wasn’t really the most disappointing trait of the game, but the attendance at Arizona Stadium was. There was a palpable vibe all week that this game was going to be a sellout. The announced attendance was 55,463. But just 60 percent of the student section was full, and the rest of the stadium was roughly 70 percent to capacity. Those are generous numbers mind you, just from the naked eye.

RELATED: Wildcats leave Arizona fans little to be excited about on Family Weekend

Since Arizona is prominently known for its basketball program, it’s either the football season has a stellar year like in 2014, or fans automatically jump ship to Sean Miller and company. In other words, Arizona football is now a forgotten chapter of the 2016 season, and just by looking at the lack of fan support, nobody in Tucson cares about attending games anymore.

“I can’t control people’s opinions,” Rodriguez said. ”Other people’s opinions are other people’s opinions and they’re entitled to it and allowed to it. We’re 2-5 and we’ve had some adversity, but we’re 2-5. … If they’re not happy with not winning, hey, nobody over here is either.”

Rodriguez said it’s going to be a long haul fixing the short-term issues. But the long-term problems on the depth chart with the plethora of injuries won’t be a factor in the future with upcoming recruiting classes.

“I don’t realm to the optimist, pessimist, I’m more of a realist—this is what it is,” Rodriguez said. “Some of the problems that didn’t occur overnight won’t get fixed overnight, but they’re still on my watch. … We’re fixing some of them, I promise you on that.”

The only characteristic of this team that Rodriguez is riding on is the senior leadership and the positivity around the players. Which at least provides a smidge of hope for the Wildcats, even though their bowl streak in the Rodriguez era appears in jeopardy.

“He’s confident in our abilities and he knows he’s got guys that can compete and that he can win with,” Arizona defensive lineman Sani Fuimaono said. “I believe so, too.”

It’s admirable that the veterans on the team haven’t lost confidence, but the program is in shambles and if it can’t figure out at least one go-to method to keep the Wildcats competitive, then don’t be surprised if Rodriguez starts looking elsewhere for a head coaching gig like he did last season with South Carolina.

This could very well just be a rebuilding stage, and a hiccup. But when Rodriguez’s best years were with former head coach Mike Stoops’ players, that’s an issue.

“[Rodriguez is] one of the best coaches in college football, so I think he knows what he’s doing,” Green said.

RELATED: Recap: USC comes out hot and breezes to easy 48-14 victory

Arizona football is on track to have its worst season Stoops was fired in 2011. With a reserve tight end playing quarterback, lack of fan support and now four consecutive losses, a bye week couldn’t have came at a better time.

“I would’ve liked to have it two weeks ago, but now better than never,” Rodriguez said.

Follow Justin Spear on Twitter.

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