Can it be Homecoming every week?
Maybe it was the presence of many members of the 1998 Arizona team, the best in school history, who were honored during halftime Saturday night. Maybe it was because the Oregon Ducks, having just played horribly in the first half of a loss at Washington State last week, came to Tucson lacking confidence.
Or maybe the Arizona Wildcats really aren’t that bad, though still not really good.
Whatever the reason, the 44-15 curb-stomping of Oregon felt like Arizona collectively let out all its frustration from a season that began with so much hope but entering the game had started to feel hopeless.
And over the course of four quarters—less than three, actually, since Arizona had this one locked up midway through the third—the Wildcats’ bowl chances are looking a lot better. Now 4-5 overall (and 3-3 in the Pac-12), all they need are two more wins to become eligible for a 13th game.
The fifth one could come on Friday when Colorado comes to town on a short week after losing at home. To Oregon State. As 26.5-point underdogs. If that doesn’t sap a team’s confidence, what does?
That would mean the Wildcats would only need to win once more—probably not at Washington State—and that could be the Territorial Cup in Tucson to end the season.
But before getting too ahead of ourselves, let’s look at what we learned about Arizona from its most-impressive win of the season:
A fast start leads to an enjoyable ending
Want to know whether Arizona is going to win each week? Look no further than its first offensive possession.
The Wildcats went 75 yards in seven plays, a 22-yard touchdown pass from Khalil Tate to Shawn Poindexter giving them a 7-0 lead less than four minutes into the game. Arizona is now 4-0 when scoring the first time it has the ball, 0-5 when it doesn’t.
It shouldn’t be that simple, but maybe it is. Actually, what Arizona has done in its victories has come out of the gate with an energy and a purpose, both offensively and defensively, and set the tone for how the game would go.
That’s a lot different than going three-and-out and then giving up points, or vice versa. The key is figuring out why that has happened four times (and not the five other times) and bottle it, then have everyone take a sip of that elixir before kickoff.
See what happens when you disrupt the pocket?
A week after recording season-highs in sacks (four) and tackles for loss (12), albeit in a 31-30 loss at UCLA, Arizona was credited with just one sack and four TFLs. Yet the Wildcats only allowed 270 yards of total offense, their second-best effort of the year, and forced three turnovers.
What was the difference, then?
How about the fact that, rather than routinely rushing three or four players, Arizona brought the heat with a few extra guys on numerous occasions. While they didn’t get home much they certainly flustered Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert, who needed 48 passes to throw for 196 yards.
The Wildcats’ willingness to force the issue was very evident on the down that shall not be named, the one that opponents have repeatedly beaten Arizona badly on. That wasn’t the case with Oregon, who was just 3 of 16 on third down and had eight three-and-out possessions (including its first three).
To put those 13 successful third down stops in perspective, Arizona had only made a stop 74 times in its first eight games, giving up first downs 57 times (43.5 percent of the time).
You’re going to get burned on occasion when you blitz and bring pressure, but the risk is worth the reward.
The offense still lacks creativity
It may sound like #firstworldproblems to be griping about the offense after it gained 465 yards (26.2 above average) and scored 44 points, Arizona’s most against an FBS team since dropping 49 on Oregon State last November.
But considering how much the defense did, in terms of getting off the field, forcing turnovers, etc., the offense didn’t hold up its end of the bargain. Not early, at least, and overall not nearly as much as you’d expect in a game when the Wildcats had a time-of-possession edge of more than 12 minutes.
JJ Taylor was a boss, rushing for 212 yards and two touchdowns—the last with a tribute to Ortege Jenkins and his Leap by the Lake from 1998—and the receiving duo of Shun Brown (career-high 10 catches for 96 yards and a TD) and Shawn Poindexter (TDs on both of his receptions, plus another great grab that was negated by penalty) were lights out.
But that production came in spite of the play calling, which remains about as formulaic as a CBS procedural in its 14th season.
Arizona wanted to pick on Oregon’s smaller defensive backs and it showed, but Khalil Tate kept overthrowing on deep balls and it took a while before offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone stopped sending in those plays and started exploiting all the space the Ducks were given over the middle.
And while the offensive line blocked fairly well for Taylor, almost all his carries came when he was the only back on the field. Same with Gary Brightwell for the short time he was in (before leaving the field on crutches with an apparent ankle injury).
The zone reads and RPO plays? Tate either handed off to Taylor/Brightwell or pulled back and threw, rarely looking to keep and take off (and if he had, it was there). Part of that might have been on him, not wanting to test the ankle that has been such an issue for him, but it was also pretty clear Mazzone didn’t really want that as an option or he would have pushed to make it happen.