It’s not outlandish to say Saturday’s game against Cal is a must win for the Arizona Wildcats, considering that the second half of the schedule looks like it will be much tougher than what Arizona has faced to this point.
Sitting at 2-3 overall and 1-1 in the Pac-12, the Wildcats will play back-to-back road games after Saturday and their final six opponents are a combined 17-10. The first five teams they’ve faced are 10-13.
Here’s what to keep an eye on when Arizona takes on the California Golden Bears:
Jumping out of the gate
The game won’t officially be decided in the first quarter but it might as well. That’s because how Arizona performs in that opening 15 minutes has been indicative of the final outcome, particularly the Wildcats’ first offensive drive.
In wins over Southern Utah and Oregon State, Arizona scored a touchdown on its first drive. That wasn’t the case in its three losses, with zero points scored by the good guys in that first period.
Arizona has been outscored 79-48 in the first half this season, compared to it outscoring opponents 110-63 in the second half (and 62-28 in the fourth quarter). As good as the Wildcats have looked down the stretch they need to be able to show some of that early on so all that late production isn’t just to turn a blowout into closer game.
It’s no secret that quarterback Khalil Tate isn’t fully healthy, and hasn’t been in a few weeks. That left ankle he injured in Week 2 against Houston hasn’t healed and it may very well not until he’s had some time to rest.
Arizona doesn’t have its bye week until Week 11, in mid-November, so unless the Wildcats intend on sitting him—not likely, considering the other quarterback options—it means minimizing the stress that’s put on that ankle.
Last week against USC it was evident that Tate didn’t feel comfortable cutting up field when he had chances to run. That’s probably not going to change anytime soon.
Establishing the run
Arizona ran for a season-low 98 yards against USC, its lowest output on the ground since November 2015 (also against the Trojans). A consistent ability to run the ball was a staple of Rich Rodriguez’s Wildcat teams but it’s also been a strong indicator of success across college football.
Through the first five weeks of the 2018 season, FBS teams are 185-46 when rushing for 200 or more yards. When failing to reach the 200-yard mark those same teams are 160-214.
Arizona ran for 200-plus in wins over Southern Utah and Oregon State and hasn’t in any of its losses. That continues a trend for Kevin Sumlin-coached teams, which are a combined 42-1 when running for 200 yards and 47-45 when not reaching that mark.
Double the quarterbacks, double the problems
Cal has gone back and forth between freshman Chase Garbers and sophomore Brandon McIlwain at quarterback the last three games. And while their overall production hasn’t been great there’s still a concern about how making constant switches at that position can affect a defense.
Both QBs are mobile, combining for 402 rushing yards and two touchdowns, which adds another element to how Arizona defends them.
Arizona previously prepared for a two-QB approach ahead of the Week 4 game at Oregon State only to have the Beavers stick with just one passer when senior Jake Luton sat out with an ankle injury.
The kicking game
When Arizona lined up for arguably the worst onside kick attempt in college football history at the end of the USC game it wasn’t sophomore Lucas Havrisik on the field. It was senior Josh Pollack, making his season debut.
Was that just because Pollack is more adept at those kinds of kicks—it sure didn’t look like it—or a sign that the Wildcats are prepared to make a switch at placekicker? After all, that play came immediately after Havrisik shanked an extra point that would have made it a three-point game, and in the first half he’d had a field goal blocked.
Havrisik is 4 of 8 on field goals this season. Pollack was 11 of 15 in that role in 2017.