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What to watch for when Arizona visits Stanford on Saturday

NCAA Football: Arizona at Southern California Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Wildcats make their first trip to Palo Alto in four years when they take on the Stanford Cardinal on Saturday afternoon. The it’s last of a two-game road trip through California that didn’t start well, with the Wildcats falling 41-14 at USC.

Arizona (4-3, 2-2 Pac-12) could massively improve its bowl chances with a win, and Stanford (3-4, 2-3) looks particularly vulnerable this year after regularly being one of the best teams in the conference. But the way the Wildcats have played in their last six quarters, getting outscored 79-24 by Washington and USC, there are no guarantees of a strong road performance.

Here are some of the most notable things to be keeping an eye out for when Arizona and Stanford kick off Saturday at 12:30 p.m. PT on the Pac-12 Network:

Which quarterbacks play?

Despite a woeful performance in two-plus quarters against USC, in which he threw for just 47 yards and was sacked six times, Arizona coach Kevin Sumlin insists Khalil Tate is still the starting quarterback. But he’s also been emphatic that true freshman Grant Gunnell was never going to redshirt this season, and his next appearance will ensure that.

So does that mean Tate will start against Stanford but have a short lease, with Gunnell waiting to come in at the first sign of trouble (or of Tate running out of bounds behind the line of scrimmage)?

Stanford is also in a ‘who will it start’ situation but it’s much more of a health issue than one of performance. The Cardinal began the year with senior K.J. Costello, but a concussion in the opener against Northwestern kept him from playing against USC and he’s missed the Cardinal’s last three games with a thumb injury.

Junior Davis Mills, who has started three games, missed last week’s home loss to UCLA with a calf injury and like Costello is questionable for Saturday. If neither can go Stanford will turn to sophomore Jack West, who was 15 of 32 for 143 yards against the Bruins.

Protecting those QBs

Whoever gets the snaps for Arizona and Stanford may find themselves running for their respective lives a lot on Saturday. That’s because neither team has been able to protect the passer of late.

Arizona has allowed 11 sacks in the past two games, giving up seven to USC last week, though it doesn’t help that Tate struggles to spot the sideline while scrambling. Stanford’s line, which last week was down to six healthy blockers available, has yielded 20 sacks this season with UCLA getting seven in the last game (compared to nine in its first six games).

The blitz has been a big issue for Arizona of late, with all three Pac-12 opponents sending extra men on the regular, and there’s no reason to think that trend will stop as long as the Wildcats struggle in that area.

“Once you show you struggle with something every team is going to try and do that,” center Josh McCauley said. “We gotta be able to fix that quick and be ready for Stanford and Oregon State and whoever else we have left.”

With the state of Stanford’s O-line, there’s no better time than now for Arizona to actually get some pressure on an opposing QB. The Wildcats have just seven sacks this season, least in the Pac-12 and among the fewest in the country.

Starting fast, or at least not so slow

Prior to the Washington game, when it was outscored 24-10, the fourth quarter belonged to Arizona. The same can’t be said for the opening period, where the Wildcats have been outscored 54-28, including 16-0 in the last two games.

The slow starts have been particularly problematic on the road for Arizona under Sumlin. Take away last year’s game at Oregon State and the visit to Colorado earlier this month (both wins) and the Wildcats have found themselves down huge when playing away from Arizona Stadium.

Here are those NSFW numbers:

  • * Sept. 2018 at Houston: down 38-0 (lost 45-18)
  • * Oct. 2018 at Utah: down 35-0 (lost 42-10)
  • * Oct. 2018 at UCLA: down 10-0 (lost 31-30)
  • * Nov. 2018 at Washington State: down 14-0 (lost 69-28)
  • * Aug. 2019 at Hawaii: down 14-0 (lost 45-38)
  • * Oct. 2019 at USC: down 34-0 (lost 41-14)

This season, Arizona has only led or been tied for 64:46 of 180 first-half minutes against FBS opponents, and that includes all but 1:52 of the opening 30 minutes against Texas Tech. The NAU game on Sept. 7 is the only time this season the Wildcats have led by more than one score before halftime.

Ball insecurity

In describing Stanford earlier this week, Sumlin noted that the Cardinal play “possession football” by limiting the number of times an opponent gets the ball via their patient, methodical offense. Only Utah has held the ball longer on offense among Pac-12 teams this season than Stanford.

With that in mind, the last thing Arizona can afford to do is squander its possessions by turning it over. In its last two games it has seven times (compared to six in the first five games) and overall in 2019 the Wildcats’ 13 turnovers have resulted in 61 opponent points.

Stanford has only forced eight takeaways, second-fewest in the Pac-12, and four of those were in the season opener against Northwestern.

Ground and pound

Arizona has slipped to second in the Pac-12 in rushing, its 199.7 yards per game on pace to be its lowest average since 2014. The Wildcats’ 5.14 yards per carry is third-best in the conference, but against Pac-12 opponents they’re only gaining 3.57 yards per rush.

The return of junior J.J. Taylor the last two weeks has coincided with two other backs, junior Gary Brightwell and redshirt freshman Bam Smith, both sitting out due to injury. Arizona has split carries with five different ball carriers this season, yet only twice have all five been available at the same time, and the Wildcats ran for 795 yards and seven touchdowns in those games.

Stanford allowed 263 yards (6.12 per carry) on the ground against UCLA last week, its defensive front not nearly as stout as in years past. In five Pac-12 games the Cardinal are yielding 4.43 yards per carry with eight rushing TDs.