The Arizona Wildcats dropped their season opener to BYU 18-16 on Saturday night in Glendale.
Here are three things we learned:
Rich Rodriguez has complete faith in Anu Solomon
Anu Solomon did not play well in this game. The offensive line didn’t do him any favors, but Solomon didn’t have his best night. He missed — or was slow on — several reads down the field, hindering Arizona’s offense and his game management as a whole was poor.
Taking two sacks in situations where a sack had to be avoided at all costs basically says it all in that regard.
One of the sacks — right before the first half came to a close — was for a loss of 16 yards, pushing Josh Pollack’s field goal attempt from a 36-yard attempt to a 52-yard attempt. Maybe Pollack would have missed the 36-yard field goal anyway, but that extra 16 yards is a huge difference for an NFL kicker, let alone a college kicker making his first start.
Of course, Arizona lost by two points too, so if Solomon avoids the sack in that situation and Pollack makes a short 36-yard field goal, the outcome of the game would’ve been different.
Yet, despite Anu’s poor play, Rodriguez stuck with him, which suggests the quarterback competition we heard about all offseason probably wasn't as close as we were led to believe.
"There might have been a thing or two that Brandon [Dawkins] could have changed up for them but I have 100 percent confidence in Solomon," Rodriguez said after the game. "And it’s hard when you come out your first game and you don’t play well. Everybody wants to point to the quarterback, ‘that’s his fault.’ But you don’t know all the factors. Maybe there was a breakdown in the route or the protection or it was a bad play call or something. There is always a lot of factors."
Based on Rodriguez’s comments, it’d be surprising if Solomon isn't in the starting lineup against Grambling State next weekend.
And is going with Solomon instead of Dawkins the right choice? No one should know better than the coaching staff, who watch and analyze the two every day, and it’s clear that Anu is their guy.
The loss is on Anu Solomon
Solomon might be the coaching staff's guy, but Anu said this loss was on him.
"This game’s on me," Solomon said. "I gotta step it up. We gotta get better and play better."
As noted earlier, Solomon had some pretty inexcusable mental errors, and you could easily make the argument that they cost Arizona the game.
And aside from the mental errors, Solomon missed some throws — he overthrew an open Tyrell Johnson in the fourth quarter, which resulted in an interception, for example — and was often slow making reads, or missed open reads altogether. It's not coincidence that Solomon's best passing plays were usually on broken plays when he was forced to escape the pocket.
And too often he put his receivers in spots where they were going to get hit as soon as they caught the ball, limiting potential yards after catch and just making it tougher for them to hold onto the ball altogether.
Solomon also didn't make much of an impact as a runner, as he netted a total of -20 rushing yards. Again, the offensive line didn't help him, but you have to wonder if Dawkins, a more mobile quarterback, would have fared better against BYU's pass rush.
Either way, this game was on Solomon. The defense allowed just 18 points, which should've been a good enough performance to win this game, but the Solomon-led offense didn't deliver its side of the bargain.
The defense is improved
Let's be clear — very few people (if any) thought Arizona's defense would be able to hold BYU's offense to just 18 points. But they did, and they gave Arizona a great chance to win this game even though their offense was scuffling in the first three quarters.
"I thought [the defense] played well enough for the majority of the game," Rodriguez said. "We played in a new scheme and we are a little under sized of course, but they gave us a chance to win the game."
UA's front-seven isn't the most talented unit, but they were able put a good amount of pressure on Taysom Hill, and also did a decent job of slowing down BYU's running game — though they did struggle to defend zone reads.
Defensive coordinator Marcel Yates' play-calling, as advertised, was much more aggressive than what we've seen in previous years. The Wildcats blitzed more frequently and the blitzes were creative, as they — not necessarily an individual effort — often generated pressure on Hill.
The pre-snap movement confused BYU's offensive line at times, allowing the Wildcats to get into the Cougars' backfield and sometimes even a get a free rusher or two.
Also visibily improved was the team's secondary. Dane Cruikshank's coverage skills were on display and Jarvis McCall's transition to safety makes him look like a different player — in a good way.
BYU didn't have many open receivers, and Hill's longest pass of the game was only 19 yards.
All in all, the Wildcats' defense performed better than anyone could have expected, but Rodriguez said there was one facet of the game that needs to improve.
"The tackling was poor," he said. "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."
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