Coming into the season, I along with many others saw the Arizona Wildcats as a sleeper team in the Pac-12 South, one that could produce a 10-win caliber season and a Heisman trophy winner.
We were just a tiny bit off.
The season is still young. Arizona has yet to play a conference game, and is facing two likely wins in their next two matchups. There are still some legitimately talented players on this squad. Despite all that, things look bleak, as Arizona lost a close one to BYU in Tucson before getting dismantled in Houston.
The question is, what went wrong? And if the team can find and diagnose said problems, will the ship be righted?
I can not pretend to be an offensive coordinator or any kind of football coach, and both Noel Mazzone and Kevin Sumlin have been coaching for decades. That being said, many have noticed that Arizona’s new offense is built around the pass, while their greatest strength is running the ball.
In the first two games of the season, Khalil Tate is 41-79 for 538 yards, 1 score and 2 picks. If we extrapolate that to match the nine games in which Tate played meaningful snaps, Tate will go 185-356 and 2,421 yards. For comparison, Tate went 111-179 in nine games as the main QB and two garbage time games last year.
Tate is throwing at such a clip that he may throw twice as many throws this season in only a couple of extra games. For most quarterbacks, this would be fine, but Tate is at his best running the ball until the defense loads up the box, only to then unleash the deep ball. He’s a perfect quarterback for Rich Rodriguez’s offense, and it was a shock to everybody to realize how jarring Sumlin and Mazzone were changing the plan.
Tate is still an amazing athlete, and its not like he’s the worst passer in the world. However, it’s definitely cost the team having Tate’s arm carry most of the burden.
Most prognosticators anticipated Arizona’s defense improving but still being a bit of a burden. While some players have played great and plenty of blame belongs to the offense, the defense has been a disappointment yet again.
In the BYU game, the Cougars were actually slowed down reasonably well against Arizona in the first quarter. After that, the third quarter was a nightmare, as BYU scored 21 points to take a dominating lead they’d never relinquish. In the fourth quarter, Squally Canada was able to run up the middle constantly to run out the clock even though Arizona knew that was coming. It was messy, but it showed there was hope, especially with such a young defense.
The Houston game, however, was hard to find a silver lining in on the defensive side. Arizona was thoroughly torched in the first half, allowing 31 UH points. Houston went for 551 total yards, and they played all out with their starters for maybe 35 minutes. The defense honestly looked lost from the start, and they couldn’t find their way even after UA went down early.
And it’s worth noting Arizona has not recorded a single sack or takeaway this season.
This defense is still full of young pieces, and a lot of Rich Rodriguez’s recruiting was focused on the offense. Nonetheless, it’s disconcerting that the defense seems to have stayed essentially the same since last year.
So, can this get turned around?
Ultimately, yes, these weaknesses can be mitigated. For the offense, letting Khalil Tate run even a little bit more would go a long way. For the defense, time and experience will eventually help make them stronger.
There’s a huge asterisk going with that yes, though. Arizona has lost two crucial early matchups, both against solid opponents where a win could have really helped the Wildcats later in the season. Now, their path to a bowl game and beyond leads through the Pac-12 South. Arizona still has to face Oregon, USC, Utah, Colorado, and Arizona State. As of now, those all look like losses, and that would make Arizona a 5-7 team at best.
Any team can make an adjustment to improve. Hell, Arizona went from pretty bad 2-2 team to a somehow disappointing 7-6 with Khalil Tate becoming starter.
Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee such a change will happen. Sumlin and Mazzone could simply be laying the foundation for their vision of an Arizona offense in the future. That would be a criminal waste of Tate, but it could still be their plan.
The defense has no quick fix. There’s no way to fix the defense with just one position change like what happened with the 2017 offense. The one reason for hope is that the secondary is full of experience and some of the young front seven look like they could be studs, namely Colin Schooler and Tony Fields.
As of now, I’m gonna predict that the offense becomes a hybrid of RichRod’s and Sumlin’s, where Tate is allowed to run but he’s still primarily a pocket passer. The defense will get slightly better every game, and by the end of the year they may be average. I think UA goes 5-7, which would be a massive disappointment. Still, after this start, 5-7 with 4 Pac-12 wins seems optimistic.
I hope I’m wrong yet again.