So the “New Era” didn’t exactly start off the way people expected.
On Saturday night in Kevin Sumlin’s first game as head coach, the Arizona Wildcats were outplayed and outcoached by the BYU Cougars, starting the 2018 season in the exact way that this team and staff could not afford to.
There was plenty of blame to go around for the negative result, but let’s go ahead and give the full report card for the loss.
Amidst the Heisman hype, Khalil Tate was (understandably) the centerpiece of ESPN’s broadcast.
Which just shined a brighter light on how average he looked in his first action of 2018.
Tate completed just 17 of his 34 pass attempts and had a career low 14 rushing yards on eight attempts. There is blame to go on the play calling — more on that later — but the junior signal caller is not immune from the criticism.
We saw a lot more of the November Tate than the October Tate on Saturday, which is to say he was forcing long balls when there were safer options open in the flat and trying to play hero ball by throwing into double and triple coverage at times.
He did not throw any interceptions, but was also unable to showcase his athleticism in any meaningful way. I don’t think anyone had a 10-yard run being his longest in a game.
We’ll see what happens moving forward as there was an obvious focus on establishing the passing game, but Arizona seemed to avoid Tate’s best skills...which is not going to go well.
Running backs: C-
As the season drew closer and closer, I started to actually become worried about the running back position. This is not something I’ve felt in a long time for an Arizona team.
It was justified.
If you take out J.J. Taylor’s 26-yard rush at the tail end of the third quarter and the 12-yard sack of Tate, Arizona picked up 115 yards on 33 rushes, or an average of just 3.48 yards per carry. A lot of this is on the offensive line, but it is also thanks to play calling and the current running back situation.
Taylor was not able to get loose on the edge, which is where he’s most dangerous. Gary Brightwell was never able to get anything going and made a crucial mistake in the redzone by running a route out of bounds. Add in Anthony Mariscal’s one catch and the fact that Nathan Tilford isn’t even able to get ahead of the former defensive back on the depth chart, and I think there might be a running back issue in Tucson.
Wide receivers: C+
Shawn Poindexter and Tony Ellison were certainly the top options to open the year, and it wouldn’t be surprising if it stays that way.
Poindexter made some nice catches, but also had a couple of crucial drops. Ellison was very effective in the middle of the field, catching four of his five targets for 45 yards.
But everyone else...woof.
What happened to Shun Brown? He emerged as the top target last year, but on Saturday he only saw one ball come his way for 11 yards.
There was no tight end usage at all, which is part of what made Tate so effective last October. Bryce Wolma was targeted just once and finished with zero receptions. I think if Arizona were to go with more of the short-to-mid-yardage passing plays, the offense would be clicking a lot better than it was with the strategy they used vs. BYU.
Offensive line: D
Heading into the year the offensive line was the biggest concern, and while they didn’t look awful, I’d still say this is the biggest concern.
Yes, Tate did have pretty good pass protection, only getting sacked once despite the plan to throw bombs down the field. But Arizona needed to establish the run game, and there was no push up front to allow that to happen.
It didn’t help that the majority of the run plays were called to run right up the middle, which is definitely not maximizing the potential talent in the backfield. It’s also something that won’t work when this team goes up against the Houston Cougars this coming Saturday. And there still won’t be a Layth Friekh sighting until week three.
Defensive line: F
Yeah, this was not good.
Arizona managed just two tackles for loss and no sacks in this game thanks to the defensive line just being absolutely manhandled.
Justin Belknap and Dereck Boles were the only two linemen to record multiple tackles period. Neither of them made any noise in the backfield though.
This was supposed to be an area of massive improvement, and through one game, it is not that. Not even close.
Colin Schooler is Arizona’s best player.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, there were a lot of miscues by this group as well, which allowed BYU receivers to just find their way into the middle of the field and catch some easy short passes and turn them into 10+-yard gains.
I could see Schooler turning into the Scooby Wright III that we saw in his ridiculous 2014 campaign, but he’s going to need some help by both the line and his counterparts at linebacker to make this defense more stout.
Defensive backs: C-
Isaiah Hayes and Lorenzo Burns looked pretty good.
Burns actually had three of Arizona’s four pass breakups on the night and looks really good at free safety. But on the flip side, Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles looked horrible at bandit, allowing guys to get free behind him and put BYU on the scoreboard.
It will be interesting to see if the secondary is better with a healthy Jace Whittaker. UNLV transfer Tim Hough started in place of Whittaker and did a good job, breaking up a pass and recording four solo tackles. But right now the safeties appear to be more concerning than the corners.
Special teams: F
This was the other position group that was supposed to be massively improved this year.
Lucas Havrisik had his first field goal attempt blocked, and then converted a 24-yarder in the second quarter. Dylan Klumph’s first punt was 53 yards, which is all well and good, but it would have been better if it was 35 yards since he just bombed the ball into the middle of the endzone for no reason.
Klumph’s line drive punting style could prove problematic for Arizona’s coverage team in the long run as well. The first evidence of that was BYU’s 37-yard return late in the third quarter which was later turned into a TD, putting the game out of reach at 28-10. The coverage teams in general did not look great, missing tackles and allowing large lanes to open up.
And Arizona’s return game was nothing to write home about either. There were no punt returns, and the kick returns would have been better off by taking advantage of the new fair catch/automatic touchback rule.
Again, just one game, but nothing to get excited about.
Alright, here we are at the root cause for a lot of the issues above.
What was the offensive playcalling? Why neuter Tate like that? Was it his idea? Was it the coaches? Obviously they wanted to focus on throwing the ball and adding that to Tate’s repertoire, and that’s all well and good if you’re in practice or playing a lesser team, but BYU isn’t either of those things.
Once it’s not working early on, it’s time to just ditch that and run some read-option. But Sumlin, Mazzone, and the rest of Arizona’s offense stuck with the pass-first philosophy, and it bit them in the butt.
Even when a running play was called, it was sent up the middle. That’s not how Taylor will be most effective. He’s not going to be able to run over defensive linemen, so use him out on the edge. But the Cats did not do that.
On the defensive side, there was no real pressure up front to speak of throughout the game. Mix it up. Throw in some different blitz packages or even just use different guys. BYU had five more players record defensive stats than Arizona did, and only 13 true UA defenders notched a tackle.
It seems like a case where different packages need to be used and more personnel needs to be rotated in and out.
And on special teams, the things above have already been mentioned and can be attributed to the coaching.
Was Saturday disappointing? Yes. Very much so. Is it time to make snap judgments on what this team and coaching staff will look like? No. They need more than one game. But is it fair to criticize what everyone was doing? Yes. Definitely.
It’s all about improvement, and there will need to be plenty of that if Arizona is to go on the road and win an early morning game in Houston to keep a 2-1 non-conference record a possibility.