The Arizona Wildcats put together their most complete performance of the 2018 season on Saturday night in crushing the Oregon Ducks 44-15 before an alumni-filled crowd hoping that effort can be the start of better things.
On the same night the 1998 team was honored at halftime, Arizona was impressive in all facets of the game. And from a position-group standpoint, the performances were also quite strong.
The true test will be if Arizona can carry this over to the next game, Friday at home against the Colorado Buffaloes. But as far as individual progress reports go, this one was a good one.
Check out the game grades:
Was coach Kevin Sumlin trying to pull a fast one when he had Khalil Tate walk to Arizona Stadium with a protective boot on his right foot? We may never know for sure, but what is certain is that Tate looked a lot more stable on that gimpy left ankle than he had in a while. Looks like the week off helped.
On the few occasions when Tate kept the ball and took off—35 yards on six non-sack carries—he showed far less hesitancy and much more willingness to use his legs to move the ball. If only he’d called his own number more often on zone read plays, since quite often he would have had a huge running lane.
Sadly, the time off didn’t help Tate with his accuracy. He finished 19 of 33 for 189 yards with three touchdowns and an interception, but most of the incompletions were due to overthrowing receivers who were open. Many were on deep balls, where Tate’s lack of touch was evident.
As a result, it was the first game this season Arizona didn’t have a pass completion of 30 or more yards. The Wildcats are tied for ninth nationally with 20 of those.
Running backs: A
J.J. Taylor is proving to be Arizona’s best ballcarrier since Ka’Deem Carey, and it’s not even close. And depending on the severity of an apparent ankle injury to sophomore Gary Brightwell, he may have to have more games like Saturday where he’s getting the rock over and over.
The redshirt sophomore responded to the heavier-than-normal load, rushing a career-best 30 times for 212 yards and two touchdowns. That put him over the 1,000-yard mark, the first Wildcat RB to do so since Nick Wilson in 2014.
Taylor had tremendous blocking in front of him but he also did plenty of the work himself, either by using his lateral speed to get around the edge or surprising power to bounce off initial tackles for a few extra yards.
At 6.16 yards per rush, Taylor ranks third-best among players with at least 150 carries.
Wide receivers: A-
While it’s very likely they got a lot of reps with Tate during practice, Arizona’s wide receivers didn’t know for certain who would be throwing them the ball on Saturday night until just before the game. And with Tate and Rhett Rodriguez having completely different throwing styles (and velocities) that meant having to be prepared for a lot.
And that translated into a very good performance from a pass-catching standpoint, minus a few out and slant routes where the ball bounced off hands.
The routes were crisp, with Arizona often getting behind Oregon’s cornerbacks, only to see Tate overthrow his target.
Shun Brown and Shawn Poindexter are proving to be a strong 1-2 receiving duo, with the former showing off his elusiveness on screens and sideline passes while Poindexter can pretty much catch anything that’s thrown near his 6-foot-5 frame.
Offensive line: A-
The return of left tackle Layth Friekh made a huge difference for Arizona’s offensive line, with many of the run plays going right behind him early on. Despite being undersized against Oregon’s defensive front, the Wildcats almost always got the push it needed and only allowed three negative plays (one a sack in which Tate couldn’t find anyone open and ran into a tackle).
The line gave Tate the protection he needed and made it possible for Taylor’s big night, paving the way for a 276-yard team performance. Arizona is now first in the Pac-12 in rushing offense, at 205.3 yards per game, and the line deserves a good amount of credit for that.
One potential concern, though: right guard Bryson Cain had to leave the game in the second half because of injury. Michael Eletise did well in place of him, but if Cain can’t go against Colorado it would mean another new line configuration.
Defensive line: B+
PJ Johnson got a tackle for loss on Oregon’s first offensive snap. He also forced a fumble that Arizona recovered and turned into points. And Dereck Boles got his third TFL of the season in pass coverage, no less.
The overall stats weren’t so great for Arizona’s defensive line but it did its job in terms of engaging the Oregon offensive line enough to allow the Wildcat linebackers to get in there.
That group was also integral in making the blitz work since their size and strength helped collapse the pocket and make Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert rush many of his throws.
Colin Schooler and Tony Fields II. ‘Nuff said.
Okay, we’ll expound a little more on Arizona’s two best defenders. Schooler had 11 tackles, nine solo, with 1.5 TFL, while Fields added six tackles with 1.5 TFLs and a sack. Fields’ sack came on a delayed blitz where, thanks to the D-line shoving Oregon blockers to the side, he had a wide-open lane to get to Herbert.
Also worth noting was the strong play of redshirt freshman Jalen Harris, who got his first career start at Stud in place of Kylan Wilborn. Harris was tied for third among Arizona players with four tackles.
Arizona’s worst defensive position group over the course of this season looked like a completely different unit against Oregon, and that had a major impact on the game. While the pressure the front seven got on Justin Herbert was a big part of him not getting to 100 passing yards until the fourth quarter, so too was how the cornerbacks and safeties played on the back end.
The Wildcats recorded six pass breakups, their most since getting nine against Southern Utah, and three of those were by senior safety Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles. DFF was also crisp with his tackling, something that had been an issue for him all year, and overall the secondary didn’t have any notable whiffs when trying to take down a ball carrier.
Sophomore Scottie Young Jr. had his team-best third interception, playing center field and cutting off a long pass, and nearly had another.
Special teams: A+
The only way Arizona could have done better on special teams would be if it had returned a punt or kickoff for a touchdown or executed some sort of fake. And even that wouldn’t have raised the grade that much because of how well this unit performed, almost to a man.
Chacho Ulloa blocked a punt, helping to set up a score. Lorenzo Burns recovered a fumble on a muffed punt, setting up a TD. Dylan Klumph averaged 42 yards on five punts, three downed inside the 20, and had a solid 24-yard return.
The kicking game was also rock solid, with Josh Pollack going 3-for-3 (and essentially bailing out the offense when it stalled inside the Oregon red zone three times in the first half) and Lucas Havrisik even mixed in a squib kick that the Ducks return man bobbled in with a slew of booming touchbacks.
This grade is a product of taking what would be individual grades for the three coaching groups and averaging them out. And since we’re treating the offensive staff like the midterm and making defense/special teams just regular tests, that’s what has brought down the overall mark.
Noel Mazzone didn’t call a bad game, but there wasn’t much creativity (read: any) in his play calls. That’s great when the ones called always produce, but it wasn’t execution that led to Arizona settling for field goals three times in the red zone.
Arizona’s red zone TD percentage sits at 52.9 percent, which is tied for 109th nationally. Only eight of 129 other FBS teams have more made field goals from inside the 20 than the Wildcats’ 10.
There was also the issue of constantly calling early on for deep throws that, while in theory were the right move with Oregon’s smaller coverage guys, weren’t going to work without Tate getting better with his accuracy. It’s unlikely that was worked on much in practice when the main thing was to make sure Tate was able to move around on that ankle.
On the defensive side, Marcel Yates dialed up a lot of pressure and it paid off. More of that, please. Much more. You’ll get burned on occasion if the blitzers can’t get home, but it’s a lot better than dropping eight on third and long and having opposing QBs casually eat a ham sandwich while looking for a target to get open.
And special teams coach Jeremy Springer, who probably has a Red Bull fridge in his office, appears to have transferred that boundless energy into both his play calls and how his units execute those plays.