The nonconference slate didn’t go as planned, but it’s in the past. All that matters now for the Arizona Wildcats is the Pac-12 schedule, which begins Saturday with a trip to Oregon State.
The Beavers (1-2) haven’t won a conference game since November 2016 but they have looked much improved so far this season. Arizona is a 5.5-point favorite.
Here are some key storylines for Saturday’s Pac-12 opener:
Arizona ran 100 plays against Houston and managed just 18 points, then a week later it scored 62 points and gained 626 yards on just 60 snaps.
Does that mean everything that was wrong with the offense in the first two games has been fixed, or was it just a product of the opponent? It was probably a little bit of both. And while Oregon State isn’t exactly a defensive juggernaut—the Beavers allow 46.3 points per game—it will provide the Wildcats with an opportunity to build on what they did last week.
The offensive line looks much more solid with the return of senior left tackle Layth Friekh, who helped give Khalil Tate all the time he needed to throw for five touchdowns and a career-high 349 yards. Tate is still dealing with an ankle injury yet showed more mobility, particularly when looking to pass, though if he’s closer to 100 percent on Saturday a few more designed run plays could be in the mix.
OSU has new defensive coaches but a lot of the same players from 2017 when Tate ran for 206 yards and two TDs (while only throwing seven times) as Arizona ran for a school-record 534 yards.
Dealing with dual passers
Oregon State has split time between two quarterbacks—sophomore Conor Blount and senior Jake Luton—and both have put up good numbers. Blount has thrown for 570 yards and four TDs while Luton, who started the season opener, has added 372 yards and a TD.
Luton suffered an ankle injury against Nevada and is doubtful to play this week, but if that’s the case look for OSU to still go with two QBs by having sophomore Jack Colletto get some snaps.
“I do think the way things will play out I think we need two guys to play in games,” Beavers coach Jonathan Smith said Monday.
This could be a chance for the Wildcats’ front seven to make their mark because the Beavers’ offensive line hasn’t been particularly effective protecting the passer. Despite a combined 94 starts among them, OSU’s line has yielded 11 sacks in three games including five last week against Nevada.
Getting the defense off the field
For all the good things that happened in last week’s 62-31 win over Southern Utah, the overall play on defense remained a major issue. The Wildcats allowed 463 yards and were again unable to make stops, seeing Southern Utah convert on 10 of 22 third downs and 5 of 6 (!!!) times on fourth down.
Coach Kevin Sumlin said Monday the defense’s goal is to keep opponent third down conversions at 35 percent or better, yet currently that number is 44.2 percent. That ranks 109th in FBS and 10th in the Pac-12.
Oregon State is only converting on 30.95 percent of its third downs, third-worst in the Pac-12.
Picking up the flags
Arizona’s penalty count has gone up each game in September, from four against BYU to eight (for 85 yards) at Houston and then 10 (for 98 yards) against Southern Utah.
The Wildcats were called for 68 penalties in 13 games last season, an average of 5.7 per game, while so far this season they’re getting flagged 7.3 times.
Holds and the like are going to happen but several of the flags against Southern Utah were of the personal foul variety.
“We had a couple of after-the-whistle penalties, just not very smart,” Sumlin said Monday. “That’s being addressed.”
Arizona is opening the Pac-12 season on the road for the first time since 2013, but it’s been much longer since it won that first conference game away from home.
The Wildcats’ last win in this scenario came in 2009 at Oregon State, which was also the last time they were victorious in Corvallis.
Arizona has lost four straight road games and 6-11 since 2015.