For two, maybe three quarters, it looked like the Arizona Wildcats could get out of their own way enough for them to beat a more talented Washington Huskies team. A couple of halftime adjustments for Washington and a few more mistakes later, and Washington left Tucson with a 51-27 victory.
This game was probably the biggest test as to whether the previously 4-1 Wildcats were for real. The answer is still murky, but its clear that Arizona isn’t quite where the fans and administrations expectations are...yet. Here are three positives and negatives from the UA-UW game. See if you can spot a theme in the negative category
Up: Pretty much the entire second quarter
Arizona had four drives in the second quarter, while Washington had only two real possessions. Three of UA’s drives ended in points (we’ll get to the fourth later), while none of Washington’s did. Without that performance this game becomes a massacre much quicker than it did.
The quarter looked to be another rough one at the beginning, as the second play of the quarter was a Matt Aragon punt after an ugly three-and-out. Luckily, Aaron Fuller muffed the punt, and Arizona essentially got a free field goal. After a nice bend-don’t-break stop for the defense, Arizona got the ball back and did something that I promise I will discuss soon. After that, Arizona went down the field beautifully for two touchdowns, forcing a three-and-out in between.
When Arizona’s offense and defense are both clicking, it’s easy to see why there was some hype about Arizona entering this game. Those two haven’t overlapped too often this season, but if Arizona can string four quarters like this together in any of their remaining games, a bowl is in the future.
Down: Unnecessary mistakes on offense
Woof. That’s pretty much all you can say when watching a few disastrous plays during this game.
Chief among them has to be the lone terrible play of the second quarter, when Khalil Tate foolishly tried to prevent a sack by flinging the ball backwards, leading to a free Washington touchdown. It’s hard to say how much that changed the game, but imagine a game where Arizona leads 17-6 at half. That game might still end in a loss, but it wouldn’t end in a 24-point loss.
Tate also threw a tipped interception that wasn’t really his fault once the game was out of reach, and Jamarye Joiner fumbled a ball that was expertly punched out by a Washington defender. Dropped passes also abounded, and this receiving corps finally looked like the young unit I expected to see this season. All of these mistakes were preventable, and if they didn’t happen I think this game is a true Pac-12 After Dark shootout instead of a big victory for the Huskies.
Up: Return of J.J. Taylor
After missing the last few games with an injury, JJ Taylor finally got his full complement of touches Saturday night, and looked great doing it.
Arizona might have won all of its games while Taylor was missing, but it did so with an uncharacteristically questionable rushing attack. Tonight, the two best backs from Taylor’s absence, Gary Brightwell and Bam Smith, weren’t dressed. Thanks to Taylor, Arizona got back in the groove on the ground. Taylor finished with 18 carries for 89 yards and a touchdown, and got three receptions for 37 yards.
Taylor had help from Nathan Tilford and Michael Wiley in the backfield, and was far from the only receiving option when Tate was throwing it well. Nevertheless, it was obvious that he was missed, and if he can go in Arizona’s six remaining games, a few close game may flip towards the ‘Cats.
Down: Unnecessary mistakes on defense
Despite the 51 points that Washington put up against a seemingly fixed Arizona defense, the defense probably put forward the least frustrating performance of the game for the Wildcats, and this category is mostly about one thing: missed tackles.
Arizona really did have Washington locked down for the entire first half and didn’t look too bad in the third quarter. With each passing second on the game clock though, it felt like Washington’s runners got more confident, and quarterback Jacob Eason definitely got more confident. Salvon Ahmed was kept to an average night, but the defense had seemingly no answer for Sean McGrew at running back. It’s almost impossible to truly stop a quarterback with the talent of Eason, and even though Arizona’s secondary had a pretty good game, Eason was just too much late in the game.
Even with those matchups that ended in Washington’s favor, a lot of hurt could have been wiped off the scoreboard if Arizona keeps wrapping up in the second half. The entire defense looked tired in the second half, and while that’s pretty understandable, it can’t result in a fourth quarter like this. I’m still a tentative believer in Marcel Yates this year alone, although he has a lot of past history to wipe away this season if he wants to stay here.
Up: Staying in the fight as long as UA probably could
To be clear, this doesn’t mean that Arizona was doomed to lose and it’s admirable that they played it close for three quarters. This means that with all the bullet wounds in the Wildcats’ foot, they still could have won this game pretty deep into the fourth quarter, and actually looked to have the advantage at halftime.
During the game, Khalil Tate looked completely bewildered and made some baffling decisions when faced with good coverage. He continued his terrible habit of running out of bounds behind the line of scrimmage a couple of times, he committed that heinous fumble, and generally looked lost. Yet, he went a passable 13-for-25 for 184 yards and a touchdown, plus a pick that mostly wasn’t his fault. The defense let Washington get into Arizona territory quite a few times, and yet Washington only had six offensive points at halftime. The turnover battle was consistently in favor of Washington, and yet Arizona realistically could have won this game until there were about 10 minutes left in the game.
This loss does hurt, especially because the second quarter showed that this Arizona team is capable of the performances necessary to succeed in a deep conference like the Pac-12. With all the mistakes though, it might just be better to lick some wounds before the USC game and figure out how to win a game they absolutely need to.
Down: Unnecessary mistakes on special teams
Considering special teams makes up a relatively small amount of any team’s football footprint, its effect shouldn’t be great. Against Washington, Arizona’s continued failures in the department directly led to Washington staying in the game early and thus let them win the game.
Arizona’s first drive of the game ended in a punt, which in and of itself isn’t great. Once Levi Onwuzurike blocked it though, it seemed like the Wildcats were in trouble. Luckily the defense held and UW didn’t score. A few drives later, Washington was held to a three-and-out that seemed critical to keeping this team going. Instead gunner Thomas Reid III ran into Stanly Berryhill III, resulting in a muffed punt that resulted in a Huskies field goal.
To be fair, kicker Lucas Havrisik was absolutely on fire tonight. He went 2/2 on field goals and didn’t let a single Arizona kickoff be returned. That’s all great, but until this unit can come out with a mistake-free game, they’ll continue to be a liability for a team facing a perilous schedule.