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Arizona searching for more explosiveness on offense

The Wildcats are running a lot of plays, but don’t have much to show for it

How Arizona football coaches have fared in their debuts Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

At anytime during the 2017 season, the Arizona Wildcats were capable of ripping off big plays, with quarterback Khalil Tate usually being the one generating them.

Whether it was him throwing a deep pass or scampering for 70 yards, the Wildcats always seemed to be one snap away from six points.

The 2018 season couldn’t be any different. The Wildcats are averaging just 5.07 yards per play after averaging 6.7 per play last season.

The most notable drop-off can be seen in Arizona’s running game, which ranked No. 3 in the nation last season. The Wildcats are currently averaging half the 6.6 yards per carry they averaged last year.

Tate, one of the most dangerous dual-threat quarterbacks in the country last year, has been surprisingly one-dimensional, carrying the ball just 15 times for a paltry 22 yards and a touchdown.

That means Arizona’s longest rushing play this season is a 26-yard gain by J.J. Taylor. Its second-longest run was a 14-yard carry by true freshman Darrius Smith. Evidently an inexperienced offensive line has made it difficult for the Wildcats to run between the tackles. (Though maybe that will change when Layth Friekh returns this week.)

And while Arizona has tried to throw deep passes — something Tate did well last year — it has proven fruitless this season.

So Arizona’s inability to make big plays, along with some turnovers and missed field goals, has resulted in an anemic offense that is only averaging 19.5 points per game, despite running 85.5 plays per game, the 11th-highest mark in college football. (Note: the safety against Houston is not being included in UA’s point total here.)

Arizona head coach Kevin Sumlin knows his team needs to be better.

“We talked about the game about eight- to 12-play drives and what comes out of that: points,” he said Monday at his weekly press conference. “We’ve got to generate more explosive plays and that’s the conversation we’ve had for the last 48 hours ... because you’ve got to get bigger chunks of yardage at certain times.

“We were unsuccessful the first week with the ball going down the field a bunch. … We certainly have to be able to do that and that speaks to scheme and what we can do. Those explosive plays are a combination of things, but that’s something we’re working on right now.”

Getting Tate involved in the ground game should be a high priority, but his mobility appeared to be hampered by an ankle injury that he suffered early against Houston.

Tate downplayed it, saying he didn’t think the injury affected the game plan, but the opposite is true based on what Sumlin has said.

“That (injury) happened early in the game, so that game plan changed on the fly as we talked about Saturday,” Sumlin said Monday. “The mobility of Khalil is his strength and it was kind of cut short early in the game, so what we to do, what we try to do, is play to our players’ strengths as we get to learn this time. You’ve got a two-game resume of really who we are and what guys can do. When it comes to that, I think game plans change in the middle of the game, which happened last Saturday.”

Sumlin doesn’t know if Tate will be limited Saturday against Southern Utah, but he said the “immediate focus” is continuing to communicate with his star quarterback so that he, and the rest of the coaching staff, can determine the best way to set Tate and the offense up for success.

Because right now — at 0-2 for the first time since 1981 — they aren’t having any.

“We’re talking in between series about ‘how you’re feeling, what do you want to do? Can you do this? Can you do that?’ That communication is something that is not easy,” Sumlin said.

“I think (Tate) did a pretty good job communicating with me and (offensive coordinator) Noel (Mazzone) about where he was during that (Houston) game, whether he could help the team or hurt the team being out there. I think the second half, he showed he was going to help the team by fighting through this deal and generating yardage and points and things like that. So the focus has been different the last couple weeks because things happen during games and the ability to play to strengths is what we have to do.”