Arizona-Cal games are never boring, and Saturday’s addition to their series continued the trend of wild results. It didn’t come down to the final play like the last two years but it once again was one that Arizona Wildcats fans aren’t likely to forget anytime soon.
And not just because Arizona won 24-17 over Cal to improve to 3-3 overall and 2-1 in Pac-12 play. It’s how the Wildcats did so, gaining only 265 yards but forcing four turnovers and scoring off two of them.
If Arizona ends up making a bowl game—which is a lot more possible after winning than had it dropped to 2-4—this outcome will likely go down as the season’s turning point.
Here’s what we learned about Arizona on Saturday night:
Aside from tackling, the defense has made tremendous strides
The Arizona defense that could do no right in the first few games this season has suddenly morphed into one that’s become, dare we say it, somewhat dependable?
For the third straight game the Wildcats held their opponent to 24 or fewer points, the longest streak since the first three games of 2017. In the 13 games between those runs they allowed no fewer than 28 points and yielded an average of 37.8.
So, what changed? Well, forcing some turnovers sure helps.
Arizona had four takeaways against Cal, intercepting three passes and recovering a fumble. Two of those were directly converted into scores, first on the I-still-can’t-believe-that-happened pick by Colin Schooler that became a fumble by Colin Schooler that became a scoop-and-score by Azizi Hearn and then the game-sealing pick-six from Scottie Young Jr.
Not surprisingly, Arizona has won 18 straight games when forcing at least four turnovers.
Young had two interceptions to go with seven tackles, the sophomore safety looking in no way like someone who couldn’t participate in football activities all offseason (and most of the preseason) because of a suspension. His return has made a huge impact, but most of the improvement by Arizona’s D has come from players who have been in the rotation all season.
The only place the Wildcats defense still can get a lot better at is with tackling. On numerous occasions Saturday they had Cal players stopped behind the line of scrimmage or for a short gain only to see them squirt away for extra yardage. That contributed to Cal being 8 of 15 on third down, with opponents converting 44 percent of their third downs this season.
The offense is regressing
Take away the performances against Southern Utah, a winless FCS school, and Oregon State, whose only win is against the aforementioned winless FCS school, and Arizona has been downright awful on offense. And Saturday was the worst of the worst.
The Wildcats managed a season-low 265 yards, their fewest since netting 224 yards in the 2014 Pac-12 title game against Oregon. They hadn’t won a game when gaining so little since the 2009 Territorial Cup; that team had Nick Foles at quarterback, then just a sophomore and in his first year as Arizona’s starter after transferring from Michigan State.
It’s fair to say the Wildcats entered this season with a much more promising QB situation with Khalil Tate, but that’s no longer the case. And not just because Tate can’t/won’t (mostly won’t) run like he used to.
Coach Kevin Sumlin has frequently said his offense wants to play to its strengths, but either offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone doesn’t share that philosophy or the offensive coaches don’t know what Arizona’s strengths are.
There will be no easy games the rest of the season
Arizona is halfway through a season that, at least on paper, had the potential to be really good. It can still be pretty good but it can also end up being disastrous. That’s partly because of the offensive struggles and the remaining defensive issues but mostly because of the remaining schedule.
Simply put: the fourth quarter is going to matter in every game from here on out.
Arizona has a short turnaround before playing Friday at Utah, which had started 0-2 in league play and then cruised past Stanford on the road. After that is winless UCLA, also on the road, and while the 0-5 Bruins have looked bad they were within one score against Washington on Saturday.
After that are home games against ranked Oregon and Colorado teams that are a combined 9-1 followed by an always-dangerous trip to Washington State and then Arizona State in the finale. Arizona gets ASU at home, and the Sun Devils are 0-3 on the road so far, but those things never mean much in the Territorial Cup.
Here’s hoping y’all are doing your best to keep your blood pressure in a safe range since on game nights it’s going to be spiking to critical levels.