Down 24-0 less than five minutes into the third quarter, USC having just broken off a 69-yard touchdown run on 3rd-and-1, it would have been very easy for the Arizona Wildcats to throw in the towel. The fans had already done so, only a fraction of the announced crowd of 43,573 still around when the second half began.
But much has been the case this season, Arizona played much better after halftime than it did in the initial 30 minutes. Twenty consecutive points made what should have been a laugher a game that had doubt in the final minutes, which is admirable.
It continues Arizona’s trends of strong second halves. Since giving up 21 third-quarter points to BYU in the opener the Wildcats have outscored their opponents 110-42, holding a 62-28 edge in the fourth quarter.
They’ve been outscored 79-48 in the first half, however, which begs the question of whether the Wildcats lack urgency when games begin or they’re not being properly prepared to start strong.
Here’s what else we learned in Saturday’s 24-20 loss:
No run game means no offensive flow
In hindsight, what Arizona did on the ground against Southern Utah and Oregon State (710 yards, 7.98 yards per carry, five touchdowns) had a lot to do with the fact it was playing Southern Utah and Oregon State. Arizona State, which was averaging 127.5 rushing yards per game and 3.95 per carry, ran for 396 yards against the Beavers on Saturday night, to put OSU’s run defense into perspective.
USC offered a much sterner test for the run game and the guys up front who were responsible for making it productive. As a result, Arizona ran for just 98 yards on 37 carries, a 2.6 average.
The complete inability to establish anything on the ground made it that much harder for the passing game to be effective. Khalil Tate threw for 232 yards and two TDs but he was just 16 of 33, and for every sweet throw he connected on there were two or three that were forced because that seemed like the only way to move the ball.
Tate not being anything like the runner he was last season is only part of the problem. While his unwillingness to turn upfield when the opportunity presented himself is a major issue—whether it’s health or something else, we can only wonder—there aren’t enough run plays in the offense that can guarantee four or five yards every time.
Just look at Arizona’s last possession, when after a getting down to the USC 5-yard line the Wildcats ran nine plays before scoring. Five of those were rushes, with Taylor getting four on the first and the next three going for zero before Gary Brightwell plowed in from a yard out on 4th-and-goal.
It was eerily similar to the Houston drive where Arizona ran four times from the 1 and didn’t score.
It’s evident that Arizona wants to have a big-play facet to its offense, mostly via the pass game. That won’t happen on a consistent basis if there’s no need to worry about the run.
PJ Johnson is the defensive lineman Arizona has sorely missed
Arizona has some very good linebackers, in Colin Schooler and Tony Fields II, and there are some defensive backs that do good things from time to time. What the Wildcats have not had, and not for a while, is a defensive playmaker in the trenches.
Now it does. His name is PJ Johnson, he’s healthy and he’s going to be a problem for Pac-12 teams the rest of this season.
Just ask USC, which saw the 335-pound junior college transfer coming off the edge—yes, he lined up at defensive end most of the night—and wreaking havoc to the tune of four tackles (1.5 for loss) with a sack as well as a fumble recovery. He almost had a forced fumble on the sack but the ball came out after Trojans quarterback JT Daniels’ knee was down.
Johnson missed the Houston and Southern Utah games with a swollen foot, the result of not breaking in his cleats before the opener against BYU. Last week at Oregon State he had two TFLs and a sack.
With Johnson barreling forward from outside it made it easier for Arizona’s other defensive linemen to get involved. Dereck Boles had a season-high five tackles and Kylan Wilborn had a sack and a forced fumble.
The punting has become bad again; the kicking remains bad
Graduate transfer Dylan Klumph was supposed to be a savior for Arizona in the punting game, an experienced leg who came from California with a strong pedigree of accuracy and distance. We saw what he was capable of in the first four games, averaging 44.7 yards on his first 12 kicks.
But Saturday saw Klumph’s worst game as a Wildcat, his 38.0 reminiscent of the kind of punting Arizona had last year when it was last in the nation.
Klumph’s first kick was his longest, but not in a good way. It went 50 yards but sailed into the end zone from midfield, and his next punt was shanked for just 22 yards. Only four of his nine punts went for more than 40 yards and just three were fielded inside USC’s 20-yard line.
The field position game didn’t matter in this one. The same can’t be said about the kicking game, with Lucas Havrisik having another disastrous night...and on his birthday no less.
Havrisik had a 38-yard field goal just before halftime get partially blocked, his fifth miss in nine tries and third straight that wasn’t true. Then he shanked an extra point on Arizona’s final TD, which would have impacted what the Wildcats did had they recovered the ensuing onside kick.