The Arizona Wildcats head into their first road game facing a must-win situation. A season-opening loss to BYU has sapped any momentum that might have built during the offseason under new coach Kevin Sumlin and his strong group of returning players, and now the Wildcats are at risk of starting 0-2 for the first time since 1981.
Houston beat Arizona in Tucson a year ago and is favored by 4 points, per VegasInsider, with a high-scoring game projected based on the over/under of 71.
Here are some of the most notable storylines heading into Saturday’s tilt at TDECU Stadium in Houston:
Khalil Tate’s legs
From the moment he stepped in for Brandon Dawkins against Colorado last year, Khalil Tate’s ability to run—away, around and past—defenders was clearly his best attribute. Opponents had to devote countless hours of practice trying to figure out how to contain him, sacrificing other parts of their schemes in the process.
It seemed like a foregone conclusion that Tate would continue to do a lot of running this season, though the arrival of Kevin Sumlin and offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone made it likely that a little more passing would involved in his repertoire.
But no one expected what Tate did—or didn’t do—against BYU: only eight runs compared to 34 pass attempts, one shy of his career high. And after exploiting the short and intermediate routes early he almost exclusively went deep when throwing, completely giving up the run.
Sumlin said this week “it can only help” for Tate to run more, but how will that look? More designed runs, or just a greater chance that he’ll take off if and when receivers aren’t open?
Stopping the unstoppable
Houston will put 11 players on the field on defense but there’s really only one that matters: Ed Oliver.
The 6-foot-3, 292-pound junior defensive tackle is arguably the best player in college football, regardless of position. There’s a very good chance he’ll be the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NFL Draft—he declared months ago—and he’s the focal point of every opponent’s offensive game plan.
Arizona already knows what Oliver is capable of, having dealt with him last September in Tucson. In Houston’s 19-13 win he had 11 tackles (1.5 for loss) and a forced fumble, and in last week’s season-opening win at Rice he recorded 13 tackles (3.5 for loss) and a pair of quarterback hurries.
To compare, the Wildcats’ entire defensive line, including studs, registered only nine tackles against BYU.
Paging Shun Brown
Arizona didn’t really have a go-to receiver last season, rather a series of wideouts who could be relied on for a few catches each game. Shun Brown had the most receptions on the team, 43, as well as a team-best six touchdowns.
Khalil Tate spread the ball around against BYU, connecting with seven different receivers. Brown was one of them, but only once. On a screen play that went for 11 yards.
That was the senior’s only target, something Sumlin said was “not ok.”
Houston allowed 292 passing yards last week to Rice, and on five occasions last season were torched for 300 or more yards through the air. Brown should be able to exploit the Cougars’ secondary, assuming the ball gets thrown his way.
Kevin Sumlin’s homecoming
This is Sumlin’s 30th year as a college football coach, 11th as a head coach. The first year he was in charge was in 2008, at Houston, where in four seasons he led the Cougars to 35 victories and a pair of Conference USA division titles.
There were mixed emotions in Houston when Sumlin left for Texas A&M in 2012, feelings that likely resurfaced when the Cougars lost another coach—Tom Herman—to a big in-state school (Texas) five years later. And then when Sumlin took the Arizona job those memories came back once again, but in a different way: fans knew they’d get a shot at beating their old coach with the Wildcats set to come to Houston this season.
Sumlin has spoken glowingly of the city and the fan base this week as well as acknowledging the inevitability of facing old employers. Don’t be surprised if the ovation he gets from the crowd is a mix of cheers and boos.
Despite practice in Arizona’s triple-digit heat throughout August, many Wildcats succumbed to the elements late against BYU. Most notable was linebacker Colin Schooler, who cramped up and had to be helped off the field in the fourth quarter and missed the final defensive drive (when BYU converted twice on third down to run out the clock).
The conditions figure to be far worse in Houston, where temperature at kickoff is expected to be in the upper 80s with high humidity. Combine that with a kickoff that’s the equivalent to 9 a.m. Tucson time and Arizona’s players are going to be dealing with a lot of non-football things.
Arizona’s players have been going hard on the hydration this week. Drinking a lot of water is one thing but how the Wildcats handle the heat and humidity could make or break the game.