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What we learned from Arizona’s loss to Washington

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NCAA Football: Washington at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Wildcats lost 51-27 to the Washington Huskies on Saturday to fall to 4-2 overall and 2-1 in the Pac-12.

Our recap can be found here, Kevin Sumlin’s postgame comments can be read here, and here are some additional takeaways from the game.

Arizona football is what we thought it is

This was a classic Arizona football game. The Wildcats entered with a ton of built-up momentum after winning four straight, but threw it all away with an uninspiring performance in front of nearly 48,000 fans, the biggest crowd at Arizona Stadium this season.

The discussion now is not if Arizona can be a surprise Pac-12 South champion, but if it can simply compile enough wins to be bowl eligible.

It is a fair question to ask considering Arizona still has to win two more games, yet will likely only be favored in one the rest of the way—the homecoming tilt against Oregon State on Nov. 2.

So the loss to UW greatly changes the trajectory of the season, and provides yet another example of why UA fans have a hard time buying into the football program. The good times never last.

Turnovers are killer

The final score paints Arizona’s defense in a bad light, but it was put in some dire situations, particularly in the first half when a blocked punt and muffed punt allowed the Huskies to begin drives deep in UA territory.

UW only got three points out of those ordeals because Arizona made a big fourth-down stop after the blocked punt, then held the Huskies to a field goal after the muffed punt.

But Arizona didn’t get as lucky in the third quarter when Jamarye Joiner fumbled at the Arizona 36, and UW turned it into a TD, putting them up 27-17.

Altogether, 20 of Washington’s 51 points came off turnovers, including seven from when Khalil Tate quizzically threw a left-handed backwards pass while being sacked, resulting in a scoop and score for the Huskies.

“You can’t play a team of that caliber and turn it over that many times, have a punt blocked, and all the things that happened first half and (win),” Sumlin said afterwards. “To still be ahead (at halftime) was really a miracle.”

And while Washington did post some pretty big offensive numbers in the second half—8.1 yards per play—some of it was just the product of quarterback Jacob Eason making some terrific throws down the field against coverage that could have been tighter but wasn’t bad.

Arizona holding Washington to 3-for-13 on third downs was fairly impressive.

Khalil Tate giveth, Khalil Tate taketh away

Tate is often lauded as one of the most exciting players in college football, but a different E-word is a better description for him—enigmatic.

You simply don’t know what you are going to get from him on a game-to-game, or even play-to-play, basis.

Among the puzzling things he did Saturday: bail out of the pocket when there was any hint of pressure (UW sent some blitzes the Wildcats haven’t seen, Sumlin said), run of bounds for a sack instead of throwing the ball away, and that aforementioned left-handed fumble.

Yet immediately after that fumble, Tate led a surgical drive that ended with a 40-yard touchdown pass to Jamarye Joiner in which he flashed his NFL potential. The senior quarterback made a spot-on throw down the middle of the field, despite falling away to his left as a pass rusher knocked him to the turf.

If there is one thing we can say for certain about Tate it’s that he isn’t going to recapture the running ability he flashed in 2017. He had -28 rushing yards Saturday and the sample size is large enough to show that running is only a cursory part of his game now. In his last 16 games, he has only eclipsed 50 rushing yards twice.

Why has his game changed so much? Who knows. Maybe it’s a product of the offense. Maybe he is wary of getting injured. Maybe he already is. Sumlin said he is unsure if Tate is 100 percent healed from the hamstring and ankle injuries that caused him to miss the UCLA game.

I don’t know, to be honest,” Sumlin said.

J.J. Taylor is healthy, Gary Brightwell and Bam Smith are not

It’s a good thing Arizona has a sweet stable of running backs, because it has sure needed them the last few weeks.

J.J. Taylor finally saw extended action for the first time since the NAU game, and looked spry, rushing for 89 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries.

His two usual backups—Gary Brightwell and Bam Smith—were sidelined with injuries, but Nathan Tilford and Michael Wiley stepped in and produced nicely when Taylor needed a breather, combining for 12 carries for 84 yards.

Aside from Tilford, who is more of a between-the-tackles guy, all of UA’s running backs have diverse skill sets that have allowed them to be pretty interchangeable.

Special teams still struggling

Arizona had a punt blocked, then muffed one because Thomas Reid III ran into Stanley Berryhill III during a fair catch—a sequence that just can’t happen.

The Wildcats were lucky these errors only resulted in three points for the Huskies. The game could have gotten out of reach early otherwise.

It wasn’t all bad, though. Matt Aragon averaged a hair over 40 yards per punt—good for his standards—and Lucas Havrisik made field goals of 50 and 31 yards.

Gunnell’s redshirt status doesn’t seem to be a huge concern for the coaching staff

True freshman quarterback Grant Gunnell entered late in the fourth quarter with the game out of reach, a curious substitution. It marked the third game Gunnell has appeared in this season, meaning he can only play in one more this season if Arizona wants to redshirt him.

What if Tate gets injured and Arizona needs a replacement QB for a couple games? Do you burn Gunnell’s redshirt in that situation or only let him play in one?

It’s why using him Saturday seems like a waste. Why use one of those precious four games for garbage-time reps?

The math didn’t add up

Here’s another questionable decision the coaching staff made: not going for two when trailing by 18 with 4:25 left in the fourth quarter.

By kicking the extra point, Arizona kept a three-score deficit, all but ending the game. Yeah, you could argue it was probably already over, but the Wildcats evidently didn’t think so or else they wouldn’t have attempted an onside kick.

In the end it didn’t matter, but it just shows a lack of attention to detail.

Arizona isn’t invincible in the fourth

The Wildcats only trailed by a touchdown with 14:46 left in the fourth quarter, a decent spot to be in considering they had outscored their opponents 29-3 in their previous three fourth quarters.

This game would not adhere to that script. UW’s first four fourth-quarter drives all ended in points, including three touchdowns that allowed them to blow the game wide open.

“It was a message for us to wake up and remind us that we have to play all four quarters every game,” Tate said. “We can’t take games or quarters off. We have to be better as a whole and we’ll do better next week.”