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Grading Arizona’s performance vs. Houston

Another ugly outing

NCAA Football: Arizona at Houston
Darrius Smith
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Two weeks, two dismal performances by the Arizona Wildcats.

The UA was routed by the Houston Cougars on Saturday, falling to 0-2 for the first time since 1981.

Let’s evaluate how each position group performed in the 45-18 blowout.

Quarterbacks: D

It was another disappointing performance for former Heisman candidate Khalil Tate. He completed a career-high 24 passes for a career-high 341 yards, but needed a career-high 45 pass attempts to do it. Plus, he tossed two interceptions and battled accuracy issues for the second straight week, especially on deep passes.

In fairness, Tate tweaked his ankle on the first series and it appeared to hinder his mobility, which led Coach Kevin Sumlin to tell the ESPN crew that it “completely changed their game plan.”

However, Tate said after the game that his injury didn’t affect the game plan that much, and if that’s the case, UA’s coaching staff once again failed to develop a strategy that catered to their quarterback’s strengths. (More on that later.)

Either way, this much is clear through two games: Tate can be a terrific player when he is using his legs to complement his arm. But when he is relegated to being a pocket-passer, he’s just not that effective.

Running backs: C

Arizona’s running backs weren’t exactly in a position to succeed with the O-line being pushed around all game, so we’re grading this on a curve.

Aside from bobbling a pitch on fourth down that led to a turnover on downs, Gary Brightwell looked pretty good, showing an ability to elude defenders and create something out of nothing. He finished with 39 yards on 13 carries, but ran better than his stat-line indicates.

J.J. Taylor continued to be used between the tackles and was not able to fight for extra yards. Arizona ran him on 3rd-and-5 on two different occasions (who knows why?) and he came up short both times. He had 54 yards on 18 carries.

True freshman Darrius Smith entered late in the game and was impressive, running for 51 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries — albeit that was against Houston’s second-team defense. Smith is small but slippery. Even though the game was out of hand when he subbed in, it was cool to see him score a touchdown in his hometown.

None of the running backs caught a pass out of the backfield, which was sort of surprising since they were part of the passing game against BYU.

Wide receivers: B

Other than a couple drops by Shun Brown, it was a solid day for the receiving corps, which got plenty of action since the game was out of hand early and Arizona was forced to throw.

Shawn Poindexter recorded his first 100-yard game of his career, hauling in seven passes for 134 yards, the most by an Arizona receiver since Cayleb Jones had 182 yards on four catches in the 2015 New Mexico Bowl.

Brown had a career-high nine catches for 73 yards, which was encouraging to see after he had just one catch in the opener.

Tony Ellison had four catches for 85 yards and still has not dropped pass since last season. Stanley Berryhill III had one catch for 28 yards.

Sometimes this unit struggles to create separation, but its performance against Houston is not worth griping about since so many other things went wrong.

Offensive line: F

Arizona just cannot run the ball behind this offensive line. The Wildcats averaged just 3.1 yards per carry against Houston after averaging 4.1 yards per carry against BYU.

Houston All-American defensive tackle Ed Oliver was matched up on walk-on center Josh McCauley and that went as expected.

Arizona had first-and-goal at the Houston 1, but was not able to pound the ball into the end zone after four straight rushing attempts. Replay showed the right side of Arizona’s line got blown up on the fourth-down attempt.

The good news is that Layth Friekh will be back next game. He will reclaim his spot at left tackle which is a major upgrade, and that might allow promising true freshman Donovan Laie — who has been filling in for Friekh — to fortify one of the other spots on the line.

If there is one thing Arizona’s offensive line has been OK at, it’s pass protection. Houston had seven QB hits and one sack on 50 pass attempts. Unfortunately, Tate was not sharp enough to take advantage of the time he had.

Tight ends: D

Jamie Nunley and Bryce Wolma combined for four catches for 34 yards, but all were made in garbage time, so their impact was negligible. Nunley caught his two passes (for 21 yards) when Rhett Rodriguez entered at quarterback.

Defensive line: F

Arizona had no semblance of a pass rush for the second straight week and Houston averaged 7.4 yards per carry, so that pretty much sums how UA’s defensive line fared.

To add insult to injury, Justin Belknap and Dereck Boles got hurt during the game and PJ Johnson was in a walking boot and missed the game entirely.

If Boles has to miss time — he was carted off the field late in the game — this unit will be even worse than it already is, which doesn’t even seem possible. So much for all that talk in the offseason about how this group would be bigger and better than last year’s D-line.

Linebackers: B

Colin Schooler continues to be Arizona’s best player. He had nine tackles, three tackles for loss, two quarterback hits and a pass breakup. One of those tackles for loss resulted in a safety.

His running mate Tony Fields II actually led the team in tackles (10) but was not able to cause any havoc in the backfield.

Kylan Wilborn has been disappointing, as he has just two tackles in two games, but he clearly isn’t healthy.

Defensive backs: D

Arizona’s DBs continually got beat over the top and were lucky that Houston’s receivers dropped at least a couple surefire touchdowns.

Lorenzo Burns played well in Week 1, but regressed in this game. Tim Hough struggled, too. Hough and Isaiah Hayes both missed a tackle on a 3rd-and-5 bubble screen that turned into Houston’s first touchdown.

Not having star cornerback Jace Whittaker is obviously a big deal. Whittaker dressed for the game but did not play, even though Sumlin said earlier in the week that he would “probably be back.”

Getting Whittaker back will help the defens, to be sure, but will it be enough to turn the unit around? Nah.

Special teams: D

Dylan Klumph is good. He punted six times, averaging 42.3 yards per kick. Two of those punts went for 50+ yards. Three landed inside the 10-yard line.

The rest of UA’s special teams? Bad.

Lucas Havrisik made a 49-yard field goal, but missed a 53-yarder badly and then shanked an extra point.

Taylor was replaced by Berryhill on kick returns after averaging just 15 yards per return. (It turns out calling for a fair catch isn’t a bad idea.)

Coaching: F

The storyline coming into this game was that Arizona would find a way to get Tate involved in the running game. That didn’t happen and the offense predictably sputtered again until it was too late.

The play-calling left a lot to be desired and Sumlin admitted Arizona waited too long to make adjustments. Arizona ran the ball up the middle — you know, where Ed Oliver is — not once, but twice on 3rd-and-5 with the 5-foot-6 Taylor. Not surprisingly, it did not result in a first down.

Then there was Arizona insisting on running up the middle out of the shotgun four times in a row at the goal line. Those attempts, too, were thwarted.

Defensively, Arizona has done nothing schematically to inspire confidence that it can overcome its lack of depth and talent.

We can’t forget this, either: Arizona’s coaching staff capped off a dismal outing by deciding to punt with five minutes left while down 20 on their own 45-yard line.

The players showed resolve by trimming a 38-0 deficit to 38-18, but the coaching staff opted to throw in the towel.