The last three games have been something of a redemption tour for the Arizona Wildcats after opening the season with a disheartening loss to Hawaii.
Bounce back with a win? Check.
Beat a Power-5 opponent? Check.
Beat a Pac-12 foe? Check.
Show substantial defensive improvement? Check.
But if there is one more thing the Wildcats (3-1, 1-0 Pac-12) can do to show they are serious about making a play for a Pac-12 title, it’s win on the road Saturday against the Colorado Buffaloes (3-1, 1-0).
“Based on our past, we don’t play to our full potential on the road,” junior linebacker Colin Schooler said after the win vs. UCLA.
The Wildcats are 1-5 away from Arizona Stadium under second-year coach Kevin Sumlin. That victory came last season against a bottom-feeding Oregon State team.
And those five losses? Three of them were super ugly—a 69-28 drubbing against Washington State, a 42-10 loss to Utah, and a 45-18 defeat at Houston.
The other two were painstakingly close, games Arizona probably should have won. The Wildcats fell a yard short in a 45-38 loss at Hawaii, and last year lost by a point to UCLA in the Rose Bowl as Rhett Rodriguez filled in for the injured Khalil Tate.
Colorado, while a formidable foe, might be the right opponent for Arizona to flip its fortunes.
The Wildcats have won three straight against the Buffaloes, including a 2017 road game, albeit Arizona only won by three despite Tate rushing for an unrepeatable four touchdowns and 327 yards (an FBS record for a QB).
“Energy,” Wildcats junior edge defender Kylan Wilborn said when asked about the key to fixing their road woes. “When you’re on the road, when you’re in a hostile environment, you don’t have that ZonaZoo behind you, the sideline is very important. Guys that aren’t in, we need to be ... up supporting them. We need to generate a home hype on the road and just keep that going.”
At the same time, the Wildcats need to stay disciplined amid the crowd noise, avoiding miscommunication and the kind of dead-ball penalties that stalled their drives against UCLA.
“We use a similar snap count at home and on the road, so I don’t think it will be too much of an adjustment,” said right guard Cody Creason. “It’s a little harder to communicate with each other obviously if you can’t hear each other well, but other than that, there’s not too much of a difference.”
Then again, Arizona hasn’t had to do it on the road with a true freshman QB—a very realistic possibility with Tate still recovering from hamstring and ankle injuries.
“I think Grant (Gunnell) is gonna be Mr. Prepared,” said safety Scottie Young Jr. “He got out there against UCLA and he did his thing. I mean obviously it was at home and it’s gonna be different going to Colorado with kind of hostile environment, but he’s gonna have his teammates and his coaches there for him and we’re going to have his back.”
Another factor in Arizona’s road struggles? The playing surface. The Wildcats have only won on one grass field since 2012—Colorado’s Folsom Field.
Normally, the weather and altitude in Boulder can be a difference-maker too, but it is forecasted to be a sunny 67 degrees at kickoff, and Arizona’s improved depth and conditioning should have it prepared to handle the thin air.
“I think there’s a big difference (between grass and turf),” said defensive lineman Finton Connolly. “If they let that grass grow, you feel like you’re slower especially if it gets wet. You start slipping. ... It takes a little bit of time (to adjust).”
And therein lies another problem—slow starts. Here are some deficits Arizona has faced in five of its last six road games.
- 0-38 to Houston
- 0-35 to Utah
- 0-10 to UCLA
- 0-14 to Washington State
- 0-14 to Hawaii
The one road game Arizona has won under Sumlin—at Oregon State in 2018—it scored on its opening drive. Having an early lead allowed the Wildcats to do what they do best—run the football. 50 times, to be exact.
In all, Arizona is 5-2 under Sumlin when it scores on its opening drive, and 3-6 when it does not. Against Hawaii, the 2019 Wildcats saw just how devastating a slow start can be.
“I think Hawaii was a real big wake up call,” said wide receiver Jamarye Joiner. “We shouldn’t have lost ... but we can’t change it, so controlling the controllables is what we’re focused on.”