Sometimes all you need is an FCS team to get some things corrected.
After a tough first two games of the 2018 season, the Arizona Wildcats looked like a somewhat competent football team on Saturday night against the Southern Utah Thunderbirds. The 62-31 victory moved the team to a 1-2 overall record before Pac-12 play, and maybe instilled a little bit of confidence within the players and coaches moving forward.
There have been a lot of failing grades on our report cards so far, but week three is a little better and that GPA is coming back up!
If you feel differently about the grades that we give the groups let us know below:
Khalil Tate tied a career high with five touchdown passes and ended up with 349 passing yards, the most he’s ever had in a college game.
Tate completed 13 of his 20 pass attempts, and it could have been better had it not been for a couple of drops by his guys.
So why not an A for the signal caller?
On a few occasions, he looked unsure about running the ball, and was unable to attack edges and gaps like we’ve seen in the past. This probably has a lot to do with his obvious lingering ankle issue, and some of it probably has to do with the game situation. Either way, it was odd to see him not make those explosive plays. 12 of his 19 rushing yards came on one play, so there’s still that dimension of Arizona’s offense missing.
But it was easily his best performance of the year, and you could argue it was his best performance since last October. The throws were accurate, they weren’t thrown into double and triple coverage, and they were all over the field, so there’s plenty to be happy about with Tate’s performance.
Oh and Rhett Rodriguez was 2-for-2. Can’t forget that.
Running backs: A-
This was also the best showing from this group and it wasn’t even close.
Gary Brightwell was actually the star here, and may be playing himself into more and more carries at the season progresses. He was able to pick up 86 yards on nine carries and was looking like he could be the physical piece of Arizona’s running puzzle.
Anthony Mariscal also looked good in his late-game action and Branden Leon was able to do some things too. This game also made it obvious that we probably won’t see much, if any, Nathan Tilford this year.
I haven’t mentioned J.J. Taylor yet and that’s because I’m still unsure if the new coaching staff knows how to use him at running back. It doesn’t seem like he’s really been put in a position to succeed this year in the backfield, but he did make a big play that we’ll touch on later.
Wide receivers: B+
Honestly, two key drops will keep me from giving this group an A this week.
Shun Brown and Tony Ellison were the only ones that had multi-catch games against SUU, hauling in five and four passes respectively. Brown had two TD catches while Ellison should have had two but dropped a ball in the corner of the endzone in the second half.
I wouldn’t read much into guys like Shawn Poindexter and Devaughn Cooper coming up with long grabs because Southern Utah’s corners looked like they were running in second gear while Arizona was in fourth gear, but Cooper’s nice diving catch was encouraging.
I just wish there was actual tight end action in this offense.
Offensive line: B
Arizona’s offensive line was...not terrible!
As the coaches and players said after the game, the return of Layth Friekh and his experience really gave this group a boost. The reshuffling worked, and Tate was able to work with a fairly clean pocket all night, allowing Arizona’s receivers to break away from the Thunderbird DBs.
The pass blocking had actually been okay so far through two games; it was the run blocking that was atrocious beyond words.
That got better too!
UA was able to pick up 268 yards on 38 carries, good for an average of 7.1 yards per rush. That is the kind of running game Arizona needs to be successful. So will it carry over to better competition? That’s what remains to be seen.
Defensive line: D+
This is the one area that I was still thoroughly unimpressed with in this one. Despite Arizona getting its first sacks of the year and actually creating negative yardage plays, I would give the credit to the linebackers moreso than the line.
I will remain very concerned with this aspect of Arizona’s defense since I don’t feel like the secondary is able to cover Pac-12 caliber receivers for very long, and if the Cats are unable to generate a pass rush by bringing four, then there could be a lot of ugly games in the future.
If you had Anthony Pandy getting the team’s first sack of the season and it took until game three....well....you win the prize.
The linebackers were responsible for five of the team’s seven TFLs, including Kylan Wilborn, who suddenly started playing like last year’s version of himself, picking up two TFLs and a sack.
Colin Schooler did Colin Schooler things recording nine tackles and two TFLs. Lee Anderson III was suddenly contributing a lot too, recording six tackles (all solo) of his own.
This is the strength of Arizona’s defense and will probably come up with the big plays that win games for this team if such a thing happens.
Defensive backs: B
Hello Jarrius Wallace, nice to see you.
With Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles struggling this year, Wallace got the start at bandit and immediately had his presence felt. He was making plays from the get go, recording eight tackles on the night, and sealed the game with a late interception on a batted ball.
Tristan Cooper also had a nice game, picking up seven tackles of his own. He only had two tackles vs. BYU and did not play against Houston.
If the Wallace and Cooper show is all it takes to make the safeties play well, I’m here for it.
We also saw Jace Whittaker start at corner for the first time this year, but he seemed to reaggravate a hand injury early on and stayed on the sideline after that. Tim Hough is not good and celebrates doing a poor job far too often, so Whittaker’s health will be a big storyline as conference play starts.
Overall, I have more confidence in the safeties than I did, but the corners? Not yet.
Special teams: A+
There were literally no issues on special teams.
Lucas Havrisik made both of his field goal attempts and all 11 of his kickoffs were touchbacks.
Arizona did not punt, so Dylan Klumph probably did just fine cheering on the team from the sideline. I’m going to assume he was great at this without any actual proof.
And for the first time in four years, the Wildcats returned a kickoff for a touchdown.
J.J. Taylor was able to take a Thunderbird squib kick to the house. The 84-yard TD return was the program’s first non-onside kick TD return since 2010, which is pretty crazy to think about given all the athletes that have been at Arizona in that time.
It’s fair to wonder if you want your starting running back returning kicks, but at this point I’d argue that Brightwell should be getting the majority of the carries anyway, so leaving Taylor back there to return kicks is just fine in my book.
I did not notice any real issues here this week. I’m just giving them an incomplete because the defensive line is not getting any better so something needs to happen there. And I’m not sure if the playcalling will be any better in a close game.
And honestly, you can’t be giving up 30 first downs to a team like this. Oh and the penalties? 10 for 98 yards including half of those giving SUU first downs? Not great.