Before the season it looked like a trap game, the Arizona Wildcats having to go on the road in Week 2 to face a dangerous Houston team that would love to knock off a power-conference foe.
Then, after Arizona lost its opener to BYU the trip to play coach Kevin Sumlin’s former program became one that could serve as a pivotal moment in Sumlin’s first season in Tucson.
If that’s the case, Saturday’s 45-18 loss at Houston means Arizona fans could be in for a long year.
Arizona trailed 31-0 at halftime—it could have been worse if Houston’s receivers didn’t drop a handful of deep passes—and were down 38-0 before getting on the scoreboard. The Wildcats briefly made it interesting in the fourth quarter until getting stuffed four times from Houston’s 1-yard line down 38-16 but all in all it was a horrible performance for a team that many thought could contend for a Pac-12 South title.
That could still happen, since Arizona’s losses are both of the nonconference variety, but for now it’s started 0-2 for the first time since 1981.
Here’s some things we learned about the Wildcats on a hot and steamy late morning/early afternoon in Houston:
An immobile Khalil Tate is worse than one that chooses not to run
All signs pointed to Arizona letting quarterback Khalil Tate use his legs more in this game. Coach Kevin Sumlin said as much prior to the game, telling an ESPN reporter they were going to “turn him loose.”
Then Tate appeared to injure his left ankle on the Wildcats’ first series and everything changed.
Limping often between plays, Tate became even more one-dimensional than he was against BYU but this time it was by necessity and not design. He couldn’t move well, so much so that almost every time Houston got pressure on him he immediately threw the ball away.
As a result Tate ended up setting career highs in completions (24), attempts (45) and passing yards (341). He also threw a pair of interceptions and was nearly picked off a few other times, Houston’s defense just able to fall back and flood the zone.
But in the second half Tate’s ankle appeared to be less bothersome and he started to run a little more, scoring on a 2-yard run early in the fourth quarter. He also got shoved late out of bounds on an earlier run and finished with eight yards on seven carries.
Why Tate was still in the game when Arizona trailed 38-0 is a separate issue.
JJ Taylor can’t run behind this line
When Arizona decided to actually start being productive on offense—sure, it was against Houston’s backups, but still—late in the third quarter it wasn’t JJ Taylor in the backfield next to Tate. It was either Gary Brightwell or true freshman Darrius ‘Bam’ Smith, who didn’t play against BYU.
And that duo was far more productive than Taylor, who had 54 yards on 18 carries.
Smith, a Houston native, scored Arizona’s first TD and finished with 51 yards on 11 runs while Brightwell added 39 on eight carries. Brightwell’s numbers would have been better had he not muffed a pitch on a fourth-down play in the first half, resulting in a 6-yard loss.
That duo got three of the four touches (Tate got the other) when Arizona had a first-and-goal from Houston’s 1 midway through the fourth quarter. Those runs didn’t produce anything but they are an indication that, unless Taylor is hurt, he may not be the right fit for the Wildcats with the way their offensive line has done in terms of run blocking.
This defense is horrible
Like it or not, offensive growing pains were to be expected in some form with Arizona going from Rich Rodriguez’s spread attack to Noel Mazzone’s most conventional scheme. The same can’t be said for the Wildcats defense, which for the third consecutive season is led by coordinator Marcel Yates.
And much like in 2016-17, it can’t stop teams to save its life.
Arizona allowed 551 yards, 6.9 per play, with Houston gaining 20-plus yards on eight occasions. The Wildcats had zero sacks for the second game in a row and again didn’t record a takeaway.
Houston was 8 of 18 on third down, six of those conversions coming on its first 10 tries.
The injuries are starting to mount, too. Defensive tackle PJ Johnson missed the game with a leg injury, appearing on the sideline in a walking boot, and during the game several other starters (including defensive lineman Dereck Boles, who was carted off) had to be helped to the sideline.
The players didn’t quit, but maybe the coaches did
Down 38-0 early in the third quarter, white towels easily could have been thrown in from the Arizona side of the field. Instead, the Wildcats continued to play as if they had a chance to come back.
(Ron Howard narrator voice): They really didn’t.
While much of it came against Houston’s reserves, the effort the Wildcats showed on offense and defense in extended garbage time should be commended.
Arizona scored on three consecutive possessions to get within 38-16, the defense forcing a trio of 3-and-outs along the way. Had they been able to punch it in from the 1 things with 6:41 left things might have gotten interesting.
A safety right after that gave Arizona the ball back an it got close to midfield, but then on 4th down with 5:14 to go the Wildcats punted rather than go for it. That was a bad look for a coaching staff that isn’t getting very high marks right now.
How about that punting, though?
When your punter is the star of the game it’s usually not a good thing. That being said, Cal graduate transfer Dylan Klumph is living up to the hype he came with, and both his distance and accuracy were on display in Houston.
Klumph averaged 42.3 yards on six kicks with a long of 51. He also pinned Houston at its 1-yard line late in the first half on a ball that bounced straight up in the air inside the 5.