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Ups and downs from Arizona’s loss at USC

The Wildcats were vaporized in the Coliseum

arizona-wildcats-usc-trojans-analysis-pac-12-football-sumlin-tate-gunnell Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

After the first five games of the season, it was always apparent that the Arizona Wildcats’ schedule was going to firm up in a big way. A 4-1 start was gonna put Arizona on the fringes of bowl contention, but after a rough loss in Los Angeles, it‘s apparent that that prophecy is coming true.

Arizona was basically wiped off the map in the Coliseum, losing 41-14, and with the 14 points coming in garbage time. There were a few silver linings, but let’s be honest, this was Arizona’s worst performance in a full game since maybe last year’s Washington State game, or maybe even further back. Here are three positive takeaways and three negative takeaways (which were quite hard to narrow down).

Up: Grant Gunnell coming in late

It’s a shame that Gunnell had to come in the game for Khalil Tate, and that this might spell the end of the career of what once seemed like the best Arizona quarterback in a decade. If it had to happen though, it least it ended with Gunnell looking solid in the Coliseum.

After an absolutely brutal-to-watch first half and another tough first possession of the second half, Gunnell came into the game...and immediately threw an interception. The coaching staff stuck with Gunnell, though, and while the game was pretty much lost when he entered, he still performed admirably against USC’s reserves. He finished 16-for-26 for 196 yards and two scores, plus the opening interception. It’s not great or even really that good, but on a night where Arizona needed any positive, it works as a silver lining.

This isn’t a hugely promising sign giving the circumstances Gunnell was handed, but he has looked more like a redshirt sophomore than a true freshman when we’ve seen him this season. The starting job might be his now, and he’ll have to prove himself five more times if that’s the case. I believe in him.

Down: Inexcusably sloppy special teams

This has been such a recurring theme this season that it’s frankly laughable. The USC game was (hopefully) the nadir, and might be the worst special teams performance in one game that I’ve seen.

Arizona’s return game was never supposed to be great this season, but it has been downright atrocious. For the second week in a row, Arizona muffed a punt early, and it resulted in Stanley Berryhill III being benched in favor of Jamarye Joiner. To be fair, Berryhill’s muff last week was almost entirely the fault of Thomas Reid III, but its still not an excuse. Punting the ball has been an even bigger weakness, and Matt Aragon ended with a 35.7 yard average.

The one ace in the hole has been Lucas Havrisik, who is a touchback machine and a fairly accurate kicker. Even he wasn’t immune this week, going 0-for-2 on two admittedly long field goals and allowing two kick returns on three kickoffs. This unit needs to improve DRASTICALLY if Arizona wants to stay competitive. It’s inexcusable.

Up: Another great start from the defense

If you told me before the Texas Tech game that Arizona would be being saved by its defense in most games, I would’ve been amazed. I don’t know what to make of Marcel Yates’ job security these days, but Arizona has gone from bad 60 minutes a game on defense to merely 15 or 20 per game.

With all the miscues Arizona had in the first half, this defense was put in absolutely horrible situations. Considering that, they played admirably. USC took almost the entire first quarter to score 10 points despite two Arizona turnovers in prime field position. The Trojans only managed one more score in the first half despite continued possessions in great field position. On top of that, they forced a fumble on USC’s first drive of the second half.

After that, the defense was simply dried up. USC scored 24 points in the second half, and that should still be considered a win despite the fact that this game reached garbage time. 41 points given up does not a winning team make, but this defense has kept a limping offense in the game for two straight first halves, and deserves a salute.

Down: More miscues on offense

The special teams in Los Angeles was absolutely the worst unit on the field, but Arizona’s offense under Tate was just as bad, and it took Gunnell a while to give this unit any momentum as well.

Khalil Tate didn’t pass that often in the first half, but when he did it was tough to watch. He finished 6-for-10 for just 47 yards, basically making no impact on the game. Worse, he continued his incomprehensible habit of running out of bounds behind the line of scrimmage instead of throwing the ball away, and I believe his return to that habit may have been the nail in the coffin for his night. The running game was at least tolerable, but they couldn’t make a dent in the scoreboard either.

Gunnell really didn’t play great, but he was a vast improvement, and the running game opened up a bit once USC put its reserves in. It was obvious that the Trojans were the better team, which should surprise nobody, but the depth of Arizona’s issues should be a surprise, and a worrisome one.

Up: Fewer penalties

This is basically an anti-nitpick; it doesn’t matter too much, but it was a recurring error that seems to be getting better.

Arizona was one of the most penalized teams in the country during September, but has looked markedly better since then. Against USC, Arizona was called for five penalties for 31 yards. That’s an average number, but when you’re comparing it to some of the worst penalty numbers in the nation early in the year, that counts a positive.

That’s basically it for good things that happened Saturday night.

Down: Rough remaining schedule

You and I both know that USC pasted Arizona. So I’m going to spend this time spelling out why Arizona was always destined to look good before collapsing this year, and why the collapse is happening.

Going into the season, I thought a 5-0 start was not only reasonable but a necessity to make a bowl. After the brutal Hawaii loss, it seemed like that was over. I’ll admit after the four straight wins over questionable opponents with two byes and three home games, even I was getting a little bit excited. The good teams hit last week, and while Arizona has proven that they can stay in the fight for about 35 minutes, its clear that they don’t have the juice yet.

That’s a problem, because Arizona has to go at Stanford before hosting Oregon State, getting Veteran’s Day weekend off, and them facing the gauntlet of at Oregon, vs. Utah and at ASU. The Wildcats are losing linemen to injury fast, and with little to no depth that could be a death sentence. Stanford is just as weird and even more injured than Arizona, but it’s in Palo Alto, and Oregon State is much better than people think. I’d pick Arizona to go 1-1, leaning towards 2-0 in those games. If it ends up 1-1 or especially 0-2, this season will end in Tempe, and not in December or January. Let’s see what this squad can do.