Well, that was unexpected.
Sure, there were a lot of questions about the Arizona Wildcats entering the 2018 season, their first under Kevin Sumlin. But with so many players returning from last year, most notably quarterback Khalil Tate, the hopes for this fall were about as high they could be for a team with a new coaching staff.
And then BYU rolled into Tucson and stomped on the Wildcats like they were the team that was 4-9 in 2017.
The final score—28-23—doesn’t fully describe just how bad this result was for Arizona, a team that wasn’t ranked but also wasn’t supposed to drop its home opener.
One game doesn’t make a season, but here’s a few things we learned about the Wildcats:
The offensive play-calling doesn’t match the personnel
Had Rich Rodriguez still been head coach and calling the plays, would Arizona have won this game? It’s hard not to think that was quite possible, if only for the simple fact that most of the skill players who contributed on Saturday were ones that RichRod and his staff recruited to Tucson.
And there’s no doubt that he would have called more run plays for Khalil Tate.
Tate finished with a mere 14 rushing yards on eight carries, numbers that are only slightly better (7 for 26) when a coverage sack is taken out. His rushing touchdown, a 2-yard score with 13:29 left in the fourth quarter, was probably the only designed zone read he had all night.
Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone seemed determined to show he had developed Tate’s throwing ability during the spring and summer, calling more pass plays than runs. Tate was 17 of 34 for 197 yards and a 15-yard TD to Tony Ellison, with most of his incompletions on deep balls and several of those when shorter targets were probably better options.
Sure, there was probably some legitimate fear that Arizona’s suspect offensive line might put Tate in jeopardy on designed runs but that group fared pretty well on dropbacks. There were definitely times when he could have taken off but it was like a parking boot had been put on his leg most of the night.
As a result, Arizona gained only 326 yards. That’s 164 below last year’s average and the fewest since a November 2016 loss at Washington State.
Whether Mazzone makes adjustments, particularly those that allow for Tate to run more freely, will be key to how this season unfolds.
That being said, Shawn Poindexter and Gary Brightwell will be factors
Khalil Tate and J.J. Taylor, their involvement in the offense was a given. But who Tate would target most often when passing and who would spell Taylor in the backfield weren’t as certain.
We got an answer to both of those questions, and the future is bright for both Shawn Poindexter and Gary Brightwell.
Poindexter, a senior who was granted an extra year of eligibility in December, had four catches for 68 yards including a 33-yard catch. His numbers would have been even greater had he been able to pull in some of the longer throws Tate tossed his way, but his performance follows a breakout game in the Foster Farms Bowl.
At 6-foot-5, he’s the big target that no one else in Arizona’s receiver room can provide.
Brightwell, a sophomore, had nine carries for 30 yards (compared to 85 yards on 18 carries for Taylor). That might not look so great on the surface but most of Brightwell’s runs were between the tackles and involved some nice yards after contact, the 6-foot-1, 206-pounder’s strong legs keeping the pile moving.
That defense still has a long way to go to be anything close to good
The 28 points Arizona allowed were 6.4 fewer than they yielded per game last season, and BYU’s 392 yards were less than 18 of Arizona’s 25 previous opponents gained. And had the Wildcats offense been as productive as it was in 2017 that would have been enough to get the job done.
That much-improved defensive line? It generated zero sacks, zero quarterback hurries and eight tackles (with vaunted junior college transfer PJ Johnson posting a goose egg in the tackle column). To put that in perspective, Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver had 13 tackles by himself on Saturday.
Instead, Colin Schooler recorded 16 tackles from his mike linebacker spot—the poor guy was cramping harsh at the end of the night, missing the final defensive drive—and safety Isaiah Hayes had to make 11 solo tackles.
Lorenzo Burns looked great at one corner and UNLV transfer Tim Hough did well filling in for the injured Jace Whittaker, but Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles was repeatedly torched.
BYU was only 5 of 12 on third down but two of those conversions were on its last possession when a stop would have given Arizona a chance to win.