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Grading Arizona’s loss to USC

Hard to find positives in this one

USC v Arizona Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats lost to the USC Trojans 24-20 on Saturday, as they fell to 2-3 overall and 1-1 in the Pac-12.

Here is how we graded each position group.

Quarterbacks: D

Aside from a few nice deep throws down the sideline, it was a subpar night for Khalil Tate. As a passer, he completed less than 50 percent of his passes for 232 yards, two touchdowns and a head-scratching interception. His best throw was a 33-yard TD that he dropped into Stanley Berryhill’s hands in the front corner of the end zone.

Tate continues to be ineffective on the ground, rushing 13 times for 38 yards with a long of nine. While he did set a season-high for carries, he looked extremely apprehensive, resorting to running east and west instead of north and south.

In one instance, he scampered out of bounds for four yards on 3rd-and-7 instead of trying to cut up field to try to pick up the first down. Arizona was down 17 at the time, with nothing to lose and a whole lot to gain.

Coach Kevin Sumlin said Tate is not 100 percent — the UA quarterback had both of his ankles taped — but his mobility did not appear to be a significant issue. He actually looked pretty spry at times.

It was his approach. Tate left a lot of rushing yards on the field by opting to throw or scramble to the nearest sideline when there was green grass ahead of him. Sumlin didn’t dispute that.

“I see the same things you see,” he said. “There are plenty of opportunities for him to run.”

We have learned that Tate simply isn’t that good when he is not a willing and/or able runner. The big question right now is: will he ever be one again?

Running backs: D

The running back usage was odd in this game. J.J. Taylor got 18 carries and Gary Brightwell only had just four, despite being the more effective runner. Taylor averaged 2.8 yards per carry. Brightwell tallied 3.5.

Taylor had trouble plunging in for a score at the goal line in the fourth quarter, but Brightwell succeeded on his very first try, plowing through USC’s defensive front. That was sort of a microcosm for the whole running game.

Taylor was coming off a big outing, I get it, but Brightwell has earned more carries than he received Saturday. His size seems to make him a better matchup against USC’s defense.

Wide receivers: B

There were no bad drops and they hauled in the deep ball nicely. USC played aggressively on the perimeter and a lot of a single coverage, and Arizona’s receivers handled it well.

“Either we hit the deep ball and scored or got a penalty,” Sumlin said. “(The Trojans) were content with that and lived with that and loaded the box and it made it difficult for us to run … but because of the man-to-man coverage, we were really able to get back into the game.”

Stanley Berryhill caught a 33-yard over-the-shoulder touchdown pass in the corner of the end zone in the third quarter to make it 24-7, and Cedric Peterson made a similar play in the fourth quarter to make it 24-14.

Also, props to Tony Ellison for making a 16-yard catch over the middle, despite taking a back-breaking hit. Shun Brown led the unit with five catches for 81 yards, though it took a while for him to get going.

Shawn Poindexter only had two catches for 22 yards, and took a blow to the head that somehow was not called targeting.

I didn’t really expect Arizona’s receiving corps to be one of its strengths this season, but it has been to this point.

Tight ends: N/A

Do these guys even exist anymore?

Offensive line: D

Arizona lost the battle in the trenches — both in pass protection and run blocking — but it does have a decent excuse since starting left tackle Layth Friekh missed a large portion of the second half with an ankle injury.

He was banged up before the game and tried to play through it, but that was not a tenable situation.

“They gave us an opportunity at the end to win the game,” Sumlin said. “But I think you see the difference in the last two games what Layth can do for us. He really struggled in pre-game (warmups), had real trouble changing directions. When he came out, we replaced him with Michael Eletise. I thought Mike battled, but I think there’s a reason why the last two weeks our line has played at a certain level with Layth coming back. I think you see the difference on every play.”

This should have been a good test to see if the offensive line’s improvement against Southern Utah and Oregon State was for real, but it was hard to tell since Friekh, clearly the team’s most important lineman, was not 100 percent.

Oh, and those ineligible receiver downfield penalties continued to be a thing. No excuse for that.

Defensive line: C

Arizona changed its rotation, starting its three 300-pounders — Dereck Boles, Finton Connolly and PJ Johnson — across the line.

Johnson moved from his usual spot at defensive tackle to defensive end, and fared well. The junior had four tackles, including 1.5 sacks. He also recovered the fumble on Kylan Wilborn’s strip-sack.

“We wanted to get the best people on the field. There’s positives and negatives to that,” Sumlin said. “I thought (Johnson) was very effective, but now you’re in a rotation situation. When you’re rotating he and Boles, you keep him fresher. But then we made the decision to put our best guys on the field and in the second half, those guys I thought made the difference because of their size. They didn’t have to stay on the field as much because we got third-down stops. I think (Johnson) likes that position. It’s a little less congested out there than it is in there. … He has without a doubt impacted our defense the last two weeks.”

Still, the unit mostly got pushed around in the running game. USC’s Aca’cedri Ware rushed for 173 yards and two touchdowns on 8.2 yards per carry.

Linebackers: C

Colin Schooler did Colin Schooler things, with 13 tackles while forcing (and recovering) a fumble.

Tony Fields II did not make his usual impact since he left the game with a right arm injury after recording two tackles and did not return. He was replaced by Jacob Colacion, who made four tackles in his debut.

Anthony Pandy was suspended, described as “internal discipline” by Sumlin. That was too bad since he was starting to emerge as a pass rusher.

In all, the tackling in the second level did not seem too sharp, but taking injuries and suspensions into account, it was an acceptable game for this unit.

Secondary: C-

Some costly breakdowns led to big gains and USC did not have trouble creating separation. But USC’s longest pass went for 37 yards, and it feels like it could have been a lot worse given all the talent they have at receiver.

Lorenzo Burns got lucky a couple times avoiding pass interference penalties, but the results of those plays were incompletions, which is a positive. Jace Whittaker missed yet another game, and we’ve yet to see what this secondary can do with him on the field.

Special teams: F

It wouldn’t be wrong to say this unit lost Arizona the game. The Wildcats lost by four and their field-goal unit left four points on the board.

Lucas Havrisik had a 38-yard field goal blocked right before halftime, then missed an extra point on UA’s final drive that kept the game at 24-20.

Havrisik has struggled immensely as a placekicker this season, going 4-of-9 on field goals. Josh Pollack made an appearance on Arizona’s onside kick attempt and it was an ugly one.

“We’ve gotta find some consistency,” Sumlin said. “Sometimes when you get a kick blocked … it’s not always the line. I got to see how low that kick was, too. We’ve struggled. … We’ve got to assess that whole unit and that position and fix things. Whether that’s a personnel change, whatever that is.”

Even Dylan Klumph, Arizona’s rockstar punter, had a tough night. He punted nine times for 342 yards (38.0 average). He hit one punt 51 yards, but it dropped into the end zone for a touchback. Another only went 21 yards.

Arizona also committed three of its eight penalties on punt returns — holding, unsportsmanlike conduct, and a face-mask penalty.

Coaching: F

Arizona looked awful for the first three and a half quarters, getting outplayed in every facet of the game. Luckily, USC made 18 penalties which allowed UA to hang around.

Colin Schooler and Tony Ellison blamed the slow start on a lack of energy, but you do have to wonder how much of it is because Arizona was outcoached and not prepared to play.

There were some blown coverages in the secondary and there were also those frustrating instances where Arizona insisted on rushing three on third down, and JT Daniels was able to find a receiver because he had all day to throw.

There were clock management issues again, too.

Just before the end of the first half, Arizona got super conservative, opting to let the time wind down to set up one final play near midfield on fourth down.

It actually worked out because Taylor drew a personal foul on a 20-yard screen pass, allowing Arizona to have an untimed down at the USC 20. However, Havrisik’s kick was blocked, so UA didn’t get any points out of the ordeal and trailed 17-0 at halftime.

Ellison dismissed any coaching issues, but it’s hard to be optimistic about the staff right now. Arizona has been underwhelming in all three facets of the game.

“The game plan’s great, coach has put a great game plan in for us, and we just have to execute it,” Ellison said. “And we didn’t do that tonight. I think defense did great, offense has to pick it up next week.”