The Arizona Wildcats squeaked by Grambling State, defeating the Tigers 31-21 after trailing by as much as 18 points. No one expected the game to be that close, but here's what we were able to learn from it:
Takeaways bailed Arizona out
The Wildcats didn’t play well on either side of the ball against Grambling State, but they did do one thing well — generate takeaways. There were six in total (all of which occurred in the second half), though at least a couple of them were unforced on Grambling State’s part.
The Wildcats failed to force a single turnover against BYU in the season opener, and it led Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez and defensive coordinator Marcel Yates to place more emphasis on that in practice this past week.
And they got the results they wanted, creating the most takeaways in a game since Arizona beat Oregon in 2006.
They certainly needed them too, as it's safe to say that without those turnovers (and DeVante Kincade’s injury), Arizona probably loses that game.
"We had to get turnovers because we weren't getting any stops," Rodriguez said. "I don't remember getting one stop... I don't think we had one three-and-out. We have to play a whole lot better."
The turnovers aided the offense too, which put up just three points in the first half.
"It was a momentum shift," wide receiver Trey Griffey said. "We were struggling offensively and they were making plays on defense. That really helped us out."
The Wildcats were able to score two touchdowns following turnovers, helping them quickly erase an 18-point deficit in the second half.
Brandon Dawkins didn’t do enough to win the starting quarterback job
From the onset, I thought Dawkins was in a lose-lose situation coming into this game. If he had led Arizona's offense to a blowout victory, the retort likely would have been "oh well, it was an FCS team, that's what he should be doing." Likewise, if Dawkins struggled — as he sort of did — the response becomes "oh, this guy has a way to go before he's ready to start."
That being said, Dawkins was still given a chance to impress and ultimately get a leg up on the quarterback competition, but I don't think he did enough to effectively separate himself from Anu Solomon.
Dawkins showed flashes of greatness, like when he connected on a 34-yard touchdown pass to Trey Griffey and a 70-yard pass to Samajie Grant, as well as several running plays, but the inconsistency was frustrating. For every good, on-target throw Dawkins made, there was one that flew way off the mark or there an open receiver that wasn't seen.
I think this game made it clear that Dawkins and Solomon both have their strengths and weaknesses, and it's honestly a personal preference of which quarterback you prefer.
Solomon is more of a deliberate player, capable of producing methodical and precise drives, while Dawkins is all over the map, both in a good and bad way.
He'll miss easy throws and leave yards on the field, but at the same time he'll create yards on the ground that someone like Solomon can't. Dawkins also seems to be better at throwing the deep ball than Solomon too.
Either way, my impression is Dawkins is a high-risk, high-reward player, while Solomon is a lower risk, but lower ceiling player. And neither is clearly better than the other at this point.
But it's also important to remember that it's been just one game for Dawkins. He'll get at least another start or two and undoubtedly his chemistry with the starting receivers will improve, putting him in a position to possibly win the job for good.
As it stands now, however, the Wildcats' QB situation is as murky as ever.
The expectations for this Arizona team should be low
Watching this game, I think it was hard to not notice the lack of talent on Arizona's roster, specifically on the defensive side of the ball.
Grambling State's offensive line was bigger than Arizona's defensive line, and the Tigers had an advantage at the skilled positions too (well, at least until Kincade got injured).
This, of course, means that the same will be true when the Wildcats face Pac-12 opponents. I mean, we sort of knew this was going to be the case heading into the season — we knew Arizona's talent level on defense was low, but it became even more evident against Grambling State.
The hope is that Arizona can overcome that talent-deficit with solid play-calling and schemes, but more often than not, talent wins out and therefore Arizona is going to have difficulty beating quality opponents this season.
I predicted Arizona to finish 7-5 this season, but after the BYU loss, that seems pretty unfeasible. 6-6 seems like the best-case scenario right now.