Yes, it was Southern Utah. Yes, the Arizona Wildcats aren’t likely to play anyone else this season of that caliber—though some of the results in the Pac-12 South on Saturday would indicate otherwise.
But after starting 0-2 for the first time since 1981, and not showing very much promise in doing so, any win is big.
So celebrate, Arizona fans, your team isn’t going to go winless this season.
The 62-31 victory over Southern Utah at the very least puts some ointment on all the sores that had come from losses to BYU and Houston. And despite the opponent there were some things that can be gleaned from a game that, a month ago, wasn’t supposed to have any impact on the overall season other than giving some backups a chance to get into a game.
Here’s what we learned about the Wildcats:
Just the possibility of Khalil Tate running does damage
Okay, time to face facts: what Tate did during the second half of last season was purely amazing. It’s also something that just can’t be replicated, not with teams knowing his tendencies, not to mention a change in offensive system under Noel Mazzone.
But that doesn’t mean Tate’s mobility and quickness can’t still be a major weapon. Just not as a pure runner.
Through three games it’s become quite evident that Tate is at his best as a passer—deal with it, he’s going to throw the ball a fair amount in this offense—when he’s moving around and not just standing in the pocket. Many of his best throws on Saturday, as well as against BYU and Houston, came when rolling out or avoiding pressure.
Why is this the case? Is he somehow more accurate while in motion than stagnant? That might be part of it but there’s also the fact that when he gives the appearance of maybe, possibly taking off that causes defenders to take that into consideration. They can’t just hang back and flood the passing zone and make it harder to complete a pass and risk Tate getting easy yards with his legs.
So that leaves Arizona’s receivers more open than when he’s throwing from between the hashes. It’s strictly a numbers game.
The game plan from here on out, at least on designed pass plays, should go heavy on moving the pocket outside and having Tate using his legs to help his arm.
Layth Friekh makes the offensive line SO much better
Arizona gained 626 yards against Southern Utah, its most since going for 644 yards against Oregon State in October 2015. And it did so on just 60 offensive snaps, for an average of 10.43 yards per play.
Prior to the final two drives that average was 11.75, which would have been the Wildcats’ best rate since at least 1999.
Again, the opponent had a lot to do with that. But so did the presence of one particular player on the field: Friekh, the senior left tackle who had started 32 straight games at that position before having to sit out Arizona’s first two games.
Without him the Wildcats averaged 5.07 yards per play. With him their shaky, inexperienced line was still lacking in overall experience but much more solid.
The protection was always there for Tate when he wanted to go for a big shot, and Arizona had many of those. Kevin Sumlin wanted chunk plays and the Wildcats responded with five pass plays of 30 or more yards and nine runs for 10-plus yards.
The defense can make plays … when put in position to do so
On paper it was another poor performance for Arizona’s defense: 31 points and 463 yards allowed to an FCS school that only managed 24 points against Oregon State (which had allowed 77 in its previous game). And for most people watching the game it wasn’t pretty, at least from an overall standpoint.
But it can be argued that, at least at times, this was the best defensive effort of the season. At least when the guys on the field were given the proper instruction.
Arizona had its first two sacks of the season as part of seven tackles for loss, with five different defenders making a tackle behind the line of scrimmage. The Wildcats forced two fumbles and got their first takeaway, an interception by Jarrius Wallace on a tipped pass.
And there were far fewer blown assignments and slightly less times when wide receivers got behind the secondary.
Oh, there were still a lot of bad plays. Southern Utah had five plays of 20-plus yards and 11 for at least 10, but there was one particularly play the Thunderbirds called over and over and the Wildcats never seemed to be able to stop. That was a simple QB keeper by Chris Helbig that resulted in several conversions on third- and fourth down including a touchdown.
Are Arizona’s players unable to read that play? No, it’s more a matter of defensive coordinator Marcel Yates not recognizing that was a possibility and didn’t ever call a play to stop it.