Prior to the start of the season, Saturday’s home game against Southern Utah looked like the start of the easiest part of the schedule for the Arizona Wildcats. That remains the case, with the game against the FCS Thunderbirds followed by a trip to Oregon State to open Pac-12 play, but what is very different is the urgency of the next two contests.
Sitting at 0-2 for the first time since 1981, Arizona not only needs to win Saturday but do so in a manner that indicates what has happened to this point was a fluke. That the offensive performance was the result of the scheme change and an inexperienced offensive line and the defensive woes were influenced by some missing starters.
Not that those losses to BYU and Houston were a sign of things to come, that a long and painful season is facing Arizona.
The fact the Wildcats are playing a team that lost by 23 at Oregon State last week and last beat an FBS team in 2013 is irrelevant. Saturday’s game is all about showing progress and giving the team (and its fans) hope for the near future.
Here are the main storylines to follow:
How healthy is Khalil Tate?
Promises by coach Kevin Sumlin to unleash Tate’s running ability ahead of the Houston game went unkept after Tate tweaked his left ankle on Arizona’s first offensive series. That turned the dual-threat quarterback into almost strictly a pocket passer, much like he was against BYU.
Both Sumlin and Tate have downplayed the injury but it could still have an impact on what Arizona does against Southern Utah, and beyond. Might plans to have Tate run more get scrapped in an effort to avoid further injury, or did the handful of carries he had in the second half at Houston show that there’s nothing to worry about?
If Tate is able to run, getting fifth-year senior Layth Friekh back at left tackle—he sat out the first two games on an NCAA suspension in exchange for being eligible—should help him immensely. Friekh is Arizona’s most experienced blocker, having started 33 games at that position, and his return helps solidify a group that certainly looked green in the first two games.
Defensive studs return
In addition to Friekh, Arizona is expecting to get back two 2017 starters on defense: senior cornerback Jace Whittaker and sophomore safety Scottie Young Jr. Whittaker missed the first two games because of an undisclosed injury while Young was suspended for the opener and didn’t play against Houston.
That duo was a key part of the Wildcat secondary a year ago, contributing four of the team’s conference-best 19 interceptions with Whittaker making 13 pass breakups.
Arizona hasn’t recorded an interception (or any takeaway) in its first two games and has allowed 36.5 points per contest. Opponents have converted on 43.3 percent of third downs and nearly one-third of their completions have gone for 15 or more yards.
Big plays wanted
Definitions vary, but by and large an “explosive” play in football is one that nets at least 20 yards. Arizona has had eight of those in two games, with only three going for 30-plus. The Wildcats’ longest play from scrimmage was a 46-yard catch by Tony Ellison in the fourth quarter against Houston.
Arizona followed that up with four consecutive runs from the Cougar 1-yard line for no gain.
Last year the Wildcats had 47 plays of 30 or more yards, fourth-most in FBS, and 18 that went at least half a field. Khalil Tate runs made up a big chunk of those explosive plays but there were also 25 pass plays that went at least 25 yards.
Arizona is moving the ball, gaining 428.5 yards per game, but not cashing in. The Wildcats ran 100 plays against Houston but scored only 18 points, the second-lowest scoring output by an FBS team since 2015 when getting at least 100 offensive snaps.
Arizona is one of four FBS teams yet to record a sack in a game this season, rarely even getting close to the quarterback with only three hurries credited to the Wildcats. Two of those are by linebacker Colin Schooler, with the defensive line almost nonexistent from a statistical standpoint so far.
Southern Utah’s QBs have been sacked just three times in two games despite averaging more than 40 pass plays per game.
If Arizona fails to record a sack on Saturday it will mark the first time it has gone three games without one since 2011 when the Wildcats didn’t have a sack in the last four games of the Mike Stoops era.
Arizona Stadium had 51,111 fans on hand for the BYU game, its biggest season-opening crowd since 2015 (the year after the Wildcats reached the Pac-12 championship). The crowd will be nowhere near that large for Southern Utah, the 8 p.m. kickoff and uninspiring opponent only partially contributing to what should be a very small number.
Wildcat fans have a history of not showing up after losses in recent years. Only 36,651 attended last year’s Pac-12 opener against Utah, down nearly 7,000 from the previous home game against Houston). And in 2016 a season-low 41,068 were in attendance to see a top-12 Colorado team beat Arizona a week after it was pummeled 69-7 at Washington State.
The Utah game last year was on a Friday. The last time Arizona failed to draw 40,000 at home on a Saturday was Nov. 15, 2003 when only 39,201 were unfortunate enough to watch a 45-0 loss to No. 2 USC in person.