The Arizona Wildcats absolutely needed a win against the Colorado Buffaloes in order for the season to be a success. Thanks to a lot of improvements in areas where the ‘Cats were lacking, that happened, with a thrilling 35-30 road victory in Boulder.
The game wasn’t perfect, and there were quite a few chances for Arizona to lose this game. Unlike past teams though, the Wildcats didn’t fall for those, and the result is a 4-1 Arizona squad leading the Pac-12 South. Before the true litmus test game against Washington, here are three ups and three downs from Arizona’s win over Colorado.
Up: Another win in a close game
After last season, one of the things I was most worried about was Arizona’s awful performance in close game. The ‘Cats finished 2-4 in one-possession games, and one of the wins was an incredibly fluky performance against Cal. That kind of close game performance is a death-knell to a team of Arizona’s stature, but the Wildcats have improved it this season.
I have absolutely no idea how to classify the Hawaii loss anymore, especially since the Warriors are now a fairly impressive looking 4-1. Nevertheless, it was a one-possession loss, and it was a brutal start to the season. After that game though, the last three games against FBS foes have been close and have ended in W’s. The Texas Tech game technically doesn’t count here, but it was a tight matchup for the vast majority of the game and I’m calling it relevant in my head canon.
Arizona has only scored eight more points than its opponents in two Pac-12 games, and UA is 2-0 in conference. Not only that, but a team that was becoming notorious for not showing up for the whole 60 minutes has done just that, and its won them two absolutely vital games. The coaching staff deserves a ton of credit for turning this around, as do the players.
Arizona is heading into the meat of its schedule, and there are probably more big losses than close games coming. If a couple of those seven games turn close, and Arizona keeps this up, a much-needed bowl trip is on the menu.
Down: Iffy defense
Against Texas Tech and UCLA, Arizona’s defense appeared to have a renaissance, keeping the team in the game and allowing only 31 combined points. Against Colorado, the defense still looked much better than its former self...but wasn’t great either.
Arizona may have held the lead when the clock hit zero, but Colorado held the lead at halftime and as late as with 7 minutes left in the game. The Buffs went for 6.1 yards per play, a number that isn’t a death sentence but certainly made the offense’s job harder. The main worry for me was the missed tackles, something that Arizona didn’t totally fix in the previous two games but improved on nonetheless. Against CU, missed tackles almost cost the Wildcats the game.
It’s more fun to blame this one on the altitude in Boulder and just enjoy Arizona being 4-1 with a somewhat solid defense. It’s also worth noting that the defense forced three field goals, which directly led to Arizona’s victory. The Washington game will prove once and for all what we should make of this defense. Honestly though, Marcel Yates has at least given a touch of proof these last few weeks, and he deserves a salute for that.
For most of Kevin Sumlin’s tenure in Tucson, penalties and other field discipline issues have plagued the team, and caused a lot of the close-game woes I discussed earlier. That was continuing this season, until this game, where Arizona’s discipline probably made the difference.
Coming into the game, Arizona was getting penalized 8.3 times per game, good for 115th in the 130-team FBS. Against Colorado, the Wildcats were penalized exactly once for only five yards. That one penalty may have been an offside while Colorado was in UA territory, but when that’s the only penalty in the whole game its easy to live with that. This is the kind of thing that changes a season from 5-7 to 6-6, and it’s very promising to see Arizona make this change.
It wasn’t only penalties. Arizona hasn’t been horrible giving the ball away, averaging 1.7 turnovers per game, but that number could come down a bit. It did against Colorado, with only one giveaway on a rare bad throw by Khalil Tate. Speaking of Tate, one of his few bad habits are running out of bounds behind the line of scrimmage. He didn’t entirely fix that against the Buffs, but he did improve a bit, looking like a senior decision-maker.
Discipline has been an Achilles heel for Sumlin’s Wildcats. One game does not fix that, but it can be the first step in fixing it. This is a great sign.
Down: Special teams again
For all the fatal flaws Arizona did a good job of fixing, Arizona didn’t quite get around to fixing their suspect special teams.
This was so close to being another promising sign of improvement in a road Pac-12 game. Converted receiver Jamarye Joiner almost broke off a kickoff touchdown return which could have given UA the lead at halftime. Instead, he just barely stepped out at the Colorado 44, which cost the team points. The rest of the return game was not great.
Another weakness in the special teams was the punting game. With Folsom Field being more than a mile above sea level, it’s a little disappointing for Matt Aragon to only average 40 yards per punt, as well as failing to pin Colorado inside the 20 more than once. Field position as a whole was rough, as CU was able to pin UA deep fairly often.
Ultimately, the game wasn’t lost due to this, and Lucas Havrisik didn’t allow a single kick return. Nevertheless, mediocre special teams isn’t fun to watch.
Up: Basically the entire offensive roster getting touches
Arizona’s depth on the offensive side of the ball didn’t seem like a glaring issue in the preseason, but it was a spot of worry. In five games thus far, Arizona has responded by proving there are playmakers DEEP on this roster.
Returning from injury, Khalil Tate torched the Buffaloes secondary, finishing 31-for-41 for 404 yards. After Grant Gunnell proved himself last week, that makes two really solid QBs on this roster. How many running back of the same caliber are on this roster? Seemingly countless. Five running backs got touches this game, and while none of them looked particularly good today, they have a vast resume behind them.
The big story has to be the number of players who caught the ball though. For a team losing their top three receivers from 2018, having any reliable targets is nice. Arizona though, ended up with 11 players catching the ball, eight of whom are receivers. Players like Cedric Peterson, Brian Casteel, Jamarye Joiner, Tayvian Cunningham, and more have made Arizona’s passing game lethal again, and it’s amazing to watch.
Defensive depth might still be an issue for this team, sure. Offensive depth, though, is firmly a strength for this squad and in the Pac-12, that’s a huge win.
Down: Running the ball
It’s no secret that Kevin Sumlin wants to run a pass-oriented form of the spread, and that the current roster is mostly built to run the ball. Sumlin tried to get the running game involved on Saturday, but they were simply shut down.
On 26 carries, the team only managed to get 83 yards, resulting in a pitiful 3.2 yards per carry for the team. JJ Taylor may have returned from injury, but he only got the ball once and got 4 yards. Gary Brightwell and Nathan Tilford got a modicum of a running game going, finishing with 27 and 23 yards, respectively, but those are still tiny numbers. Besides Tate, nobody else managed more than four yards on the day. The longest rush of the day was for just nine yards, another bad sign.
If Tate keeps throwing the ball to eighty players per game for 400 yards, and the defense stays at least average, then this is survivable. With a lot of good teams left on the schedule though, and with all the running back talent and an underrated offensive line this team has, it’d be nice to see more promising rushing performances.