Heading to Palo Alto, it seemed like the Arizona Wildcats would need a win in order to keep bowl hopes realistic. Despite heroic performances by both sides of the ball, inconsistency cost the ‘Cats dearly in a 41-31 loss.
Even for one of the most volatile teams I’ve ever seen, Saturday’s performance by the Wildcats was impressive in its unpredictability. There were positive takeaways and negative takeaways despite the crushing loss.
Here are three of each.
Up: The offense in the first half
After being pretty thoroughly shut down on offense against two admittedly much more talented opponents, the Wildcats needed to prove themselves. The first half wasn’t perfect, but it did prove that this offense can go off.
Both Khalil Tate and Grant Gunnell saw time in the first half, and while Gunnell was almost literally perfect, going 5 for 5 for 50 yards, Tate looked pretty great early as well. There were still the passing issues for Tate, but he counteracted them by finally running like his old self. On the game, Tate finished with 103 yards on nine rushes, including an electric 57-yard scamper in the second half. It’s hard to forget that absolutely beautiful one-handed touchdown from Jamarye Joiner as well.
There were issues on the whole, but when a team scores 24 points in the first half despite being notoriously slow starters on the road, it’s hard to nitpick. About that second half though...
Down: The offense in the second half
The offense showed all that promise in the first half, knew that they’d need plenty more points to win, and just couldn’t get anything done after the third quarter.
Arizona’s first drive of the half went fine, with the team going 73 yards in eight plays for a touchdown. After that game-tying drive, Arizona punted thrice, threw two picks, and turned the ball over on downs in a panicky attempted comeback drive. The Wildcats managed 121 yards in the entire half after netting 374 in the first half. Even worse, 58 of those second-half yards came on the final drive which was virtually useless.
There was a lot of outside speculation that this could be a prove-it game for Khalil Tate to keep his starting job. As is typical of this team, that storyline’s answer is no clearer despite them playing a game Saturday. Whatever happens, this team needs to explode against Oregon State’s bad defense next week.
Up: The defense in the second half
It’s a shame that the offense completely sputtered against Stanford’s defense in the second half, because just as they were falling apart, the new-look decent defense reappeared.
Stanford’s offense was on fire in the first half, which we’ll talk about soon, but the Wildcat defense put up another admirable performance in the final thirty minutes. It seems that this platoon thrives on being put in terrible positions, because their best performances of the year came in turnover-riddled first halves against Washington and USC. Arizona turned it over twice (with one being inconsequential at the end of the game), and yet Stanford only scored 10 points in the second half.
The Cardinal ended up with 140 yards in the third and fourth quarters, with 125 of those coming on Stanford’s two scoring drives. The one knock on this unit was that they couldn’t force a turnover, but with an experienced senior in the newly healthy KJ Costello throwing the ball for Stanford, that’s understandable if disappointing. Of course, they wouldn’t have been in trouble if they had played half as well in the first half.
Down: The defense in the first half
I’m not sure I can decide whether the first-half defense or the second-half offense was worse for Arizona, but the fact that it’s even a debate shows how crippling the UA defensive effort was in the first half.
It was pretty obvious that the Arizona defense wasn’t quite ready to see KJ Costello return for the Cardinal. For the game, Costello was 30-for-43 for 312 yards and three scores. Costello is a great quarterback, but the way he carved up Arizona’s defense is pretty inexcusable. Despite an average effort in the first quarter, the second quarter was a bloodbath, as Stanford marched up and down the field for 24 points.
Stanford is notorious for wearing teams away, and for teams with little depth that can be effective. Plus, Costello’s return was an obvious spark and it was good to see one of the Pac-12’s bright stars healthy again. All of that said, this team was simply not ready, and by the time it was, they’d spotted the Cardinal too many points.
Up: Showing up early (at least a little bit)
For all the defensive woes, and that talk of the defense not being prepared...the fact that Arizona even showed up for the first half and kept it a game is actually a positive sign.
Under Kevin Sumlin, Arizona has been one of the worst first quarter teams in the country, especially on the road. The Wildcats averaged 4 points in the first quarter last season, and was a worst-in-the-FBS 1.2 yards per first quarter entering Saturday. In fact, Arizona had yet to score in the first half against an FBS team this season before this week. It might have still ended in a loss, but 10 first quarter points and 24 in the first half is a small victory.
It’s pretty clear that the offense has a maximum of three good quarters per game and the defense has a maximum of two. If this team can learn to get up and use some of those good performances early, there could be a bowl in this team’s future. They’re running out of chances to get those two more wins.
Down: Team without a direction
As mentioned, this team just can not or will not show up for the entire four quarters of a game, usually at the cost of a slow start. After three losses, there needs to be serious reevaluation from all places within the program.
There was almost certainly going to be a scenario where Arizona starts hot and then trails off as the schedule gets firmer. That’s playing out now, but it’s still disconcerting to see those losses pile up. Arizona needs two wins in four games: vs. Oregon State, at Oregon, vs. Utah, at ASU. Oregon State is not a gimme game, and any of the other three games would be huge upsets if Arizona wins. Stanford is banged up, and not anywhere near their Rose Bowl peak form, and seeing Arizona blow an opportunity for a road win is not fun to see.
Two years in, there should be improvements in Sumlin’s program, even with only one recruiting class that he was responsible for. This team looks disturbingly similar to last year’s squad, and it really feels like Arizona is in the sort of pit of mediocrity that normally only pro teams fall into. He deserves to be the coach in 2020, but there has got to be some proof of concept soon, whether that be a four-quarter long performance or an upset win.