Bad things happen for the Arizona Wildcats in the Palouse. Thankfully, they’re not scheduled to play there again until 2021.
For the second time in three years, Arizona got boat-raced on the road by the Washington State Cougars. Saturday night’s 69-28 loss wiped away almost all of the positive vibes that came from wins over Oregon and Colorado prior to the bye week.
Now the Wildcats (5-6, 4-4 Pac-12) must beat Arizona State on Saturday to avoid missing out on a bowl game in a year that they were expected to contend for a division title.
With some extra time to contemplate that recent debacle, here’s what we learned about Arizona:
Eliminate the turnovers and this offense can score at will
Bet you didn’t think you’d read that, the way Arizona looked on offense for much of this season, huh? Me, either. But the last few games have shown just how much improved the Wildcats have become when they have the ball.
Arizona averaged 6.1 yards per play against the Cougars, its fifth-best performance of the season. Three of its top five yards-per-play performances have come in the last four games, during which it is scoring 36 points per game.
Compare that to the first seven games, when the Wildcats were averaging 27.4 points per game but that number was impacted by a pair of defensive touchdowns against California.
Khalil Tate has thrown for 12 touchdowns in three games since returning from his ankle injury, completing 63.5 percent of his passes. His 23 TDs, in 10 games, are only five off the school record held by Nick Foles, Anu Solomon and Willie Tuitama.
Combined with a productive run game—when it doesn’t have to be scrapped while playing from behind—Arizona has weapons. If only it could hold onto the ball.
Tate threw a bad interception early and both Gary Brightwell and JJ Taylor lost fumbles, part of a six-fumble (three-loss) result. Arizona was minus-4 against Wazzu and is now minus-2 in turnover margin for the season.
Shawn Poindexter just catches touchdowns, but shouldn’t
It’s simply amazing how money Poindexter has been this season, now sitting at 10 TD receptions on just 36 catches. He’s one score off the school record, most recently done by Austin Hill in 2011.
The 6-foot-5 senior has become Arizona’s most deadly receiving weapon in a long time, particularly in scoring position. The last six balls he’s caught have been in the end zone, including twice against Washington State.
So why is that the only place he’s getting thrown to?
It’s not, really; there were at least two times Tate targeted Poindexter between the 20s but the pass didn’t get there, and that should happen more often.
Poindexter has proven himself as a superior receiver, so it makes sense to get the ball to him as often as possible.
The secondary can’t be trusted to cover for more than a few seconds
Cornerback Lorenzo Burns was blunt with his statement early last week when he said “if he’s back there all day, eventually he’s going to find somebody” in reference to WSU quarterback Gardner Minshew II.
Burns could have been speaking about any QB against Arizona, especially when the Wildcats refuse to put any pressure on them. Their defensive backs aren’t good enough to be asked to cover more than just the initial route, and even that’s been a stretch.
Minshew is phenomenal, his 473 yards and seven TDs on 43-of-55 passing evidence of this. But Arizona is capable of making most passers look like that if it only rushes three.
The choice to do this on the majority of passing downs is one of the most frustrating aspects of Marcel Yates’ defensive play calling. The defensive line and linebackers have shown they can get home when pressuring the pocket—they sacked Minshew twice, after all, and WSU had only allowed seven sacks in the first 10 games—but most of the time the guys rushing the passer are the ones doing so on every down.