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What to watch for when Arizona visits Colorado in Pac-12 road opener

arizona-wildcats-colorado-buffaloes-preview-folsom-sumlin-tate-taylor-montez-grass-penalties Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

The first of three road games in a four-week span is on the horizon for the Arizona Wildcats when they visit the Colorado Buffaloes on Saturday afternoon. The winner of this game will move to 2-0 in Pac-12 play and be in sole possession of first place in the South Division.

Colorado (3-1, 1-0) is coming off a bye after opening Pac-12 play with a 34-31 win at Arizona State. The Buffaloes’ last three games have been decided by one score, with two going to overtime.

Arizona (3-1, 1-0) has won three straight, its longest streak since a four-game run midway through the 2017 season.

Here are some things to keep an eye on when the Wildcats and Buffaloes battle at 1:30 p.m. PT on the Pac-12 Network.

Walking wounded

Arizona and Colorado have prepared for this game unsure whether some very important players will be available.

For the Wildcats, it’s quarterback Khalil Tate and running back J.J. Taylor, both of whom missed last week’s 20-17 win over UCLA, while Colorado may be without defensive lineman Mustafa Johnson, cornerback Chris Johnson and wide receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. after each was injured Sept. 21 at ASU.

Colorado has listed that trio as day-to-day, which although vague is still something. Kevin Sumlin doesn’t comment on injuries, rarely going beyond referring to someone as “nicked up,” and on Monday he said there was no change in the status of either Tate or Taylor.

Arizona showed last time out it can get by without Tate and Taylor, as true freshman Grant Gunnell was masterful in his first career start—earning Pac-12 Freshman of the Week honors—while four other backs filled the void left by Taylor.

The ground below

Less than one-third of FBS football fields use natural grass, with Folsom Field in Colorado one of five in the Pac-12 that doesn’t have artificial turf. Arizona Stadium was grass until the 2012 season, a change made at the request of then-coach Rich Rodriguez.

And since the Wildcats stopped playing on grass at home, their results when on the real stuff have been quite terrible.

Since 2012, Arizona is 3-16 on natural grass, including two losses each at the NFL stadiums in Glendale and Santa Clara, Calif. It is 48-27 during that time on the fake stuff.

Ironically, all three of those grass wins have come in Boulder.

Under pressure

If either team’s quarterback ends up with grass stains on Saturday, it’s much more likely to be the result of them heading upfield on a run play than being sacked. That’s because neither Arizona or Colorado has managed to get to the quarterback much this season, nor have either gotten sacked much.

Colorado has yielded five sacks in four games, second-best in the Pac-12, while Arizona QBs have only been taken down behind the line seven times. The Wildcats’ four sacks on defense are last in the Pac-12, while the nine the Buffs have managed is in the bottom half of the league.

Combined, the teams are credited with just four quarterback hurries in eight total games.

“We haven’t really shown that we can get sacks,” Arizona defensive lineman Finton Connolly said. “We’ve gotten a lot of pressure on the QBs that we’ve played this year, and it’s turning into picks and turnovers for us, and that’s good, but I need sacks.”

Flag frustration

Arizona committed 10 penalties for 74 yards, the third time in four games it has been flagged at least 10 times. The Wildcats had only five penalties against Texas Tech, but the nine per game average ranks seventh-worst in FBS.

“We’re not a good enough football team to just give away yardage like that,” Sumlin said on Monday. “Obviously I haven’t done a good enough job with that.”

Arizona is averaging 8.2 penalties per game under Sumlin, compared to 5.7 under RichRod. Opponents have gained 12 first downs via the flag.

Colorado has committed just 22 penalties, three in its win at ASU two weeks ago.

Special specialists

Though Lucas Havrisik missed one of three field goals against UCLA, all in all Arizona had a strong game in the special teams area. Punter Matt Aragon had the best performance of his career, averaging 47.4 yards on five kicks including a 70-yarder, and both he and Havrisik prevented the Bruins from doing anything in the return game.

Arizona may need another stellar special teams effort to come out on top against Colorado.

The Buffaloes lead the Pac-12 in kick return average, at 33.5 yards per runback, punter Alex Kinney is third in the league with a 45.35 average and kicker James Stefanou is 6 for 6 on field goals.

The Wildcats haven’t done returning kicks and punts this season, a 42-yard punt return by Brian Casteel against NAU the closest thing to a highlight.