The month of November was always going to be a big one for the Arizona Wildcats, the way the schedule was laid out. But even before that month got here, a move was made by coach Kevin Sumlin to give his team the best chance to finish strong and get into a bowl game.
Sunday’s firing of defensive coordinator Marcel Yates and linebackers coach John Rushing, replacing them with former UA players Chuck Cecil and Hank Hobson, came after Arizona (4-4, 2-3 Pac-12) had dropped three straight games in which it allowed 133 points.
“My job is to give our team the best chance to win,” Sumlin said Monday. “As I evaluate where we are, our players have not quit. Our players are playing hard and I owe it to them to try and get the best situation that I can give our players this week. We want to win every game.”
Heck of a way to get Homecoming week started, huh?
Cecil’s debut as defensive coordinator, after spending the last two-plus seasons as a senior defensive analyst, comes Saturday when the Wildcats host the Oregon State Beavers (3-4, 2-2) at 1:30 p.m. MT. Here’s what to keep an eye out for in a game Arizona must win if it wants to stay in contention for bowl eligibility.
Will changes be noticeable?
One thing for certain is going to look different for Arizona on Saturday: the uniforms. The Wildcats will be wearing special throwback kits from the Desert Swarm era of the 1990s, without a doubt the program’s best decade during which it went 71-46-1 including records of 10-2 and 12-1.
Players made available to the media on Tuesday were all stoked about the throwbacks, and public response has been tremendous. Almost makes you wish those were the regular uniforms, huh?
But other than the gear, it’s unlikely Arizona’s defense will look drastically different under Cecil. Sumlin said no “wholesale” changes were expected, either in personnel or schematics.
That being said, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Cecil dial up a few more blitzes than Yates did, which wouldn’t be hard because Arizona rarely rushed more than four people at any point in the first eight games.
The quarterback rotation
Last week’s loss at Stanford saw Arizona turn to a two-quarterback system, starting senior Khalil Tate but inserting true freshman Grant Gunnell after two series. Tate returned to the field for the fifth series and played all but one series in the second half, and Sumlin has indicated that rotation will continue for the foreseeable future.
“We feel comfortable with both those guys,” Sumlin said. “We’ll work through it during the week, and I think more than anything else our team feels comfortable with both of them because they’ve seen both of them operate in pressure situations and then on the road or in different areas.”
The rotation worked great in the first half, with Tate going 8 for 10 for 117 yards with a passing and rushing touchdown, while Gunnell was 5 for 5 for 50 yards and a scoring throw. The second half was a different story, though, with Tate throwing 10 consecutive incompletions at one point and two interceptions, while Gunnell’s only series ended with a costly sack when he held the ball too long.
Gunnell’s 792 passing yards in five appearances are the most for a second QB at Arizona since 2005, when both Richard Kovalcheck and Willie Tuitama throw for 1,100-plus yards. It also happened in 1998 and 1999, when the Wildcats split QB reps between Ortege Jenkins and Keith Smith.
Another big day for J.J.?
J.J. Taylor ran for 107 yards and had five catches for 53 yards in the loss at Stanford, his best performance of a 2019 season that saw him miss two-plus games with an ankle injury. The rushing output moved him past 3,000 for his career, the eighth player in school history to reach that milestone.
And if history repeats itself, Taylor could make a big jump up Arizona’s career rushing chart against Oregon State.
Last year Taylor ran for a career-best 284 yards against the Beavers on Corvallis, and in 2017 he had 129 yards on just 10 carries.
OSU is allowing 191.6 rushing yards per game, second-worst in the Pac-12, giving up 200-plus on four occasions. Arizona has rushed for 976 yards against the Beavers in its last two meetings.
Taylor needs nine yards to pass Nick Wilson for seventh place, 67 to move past Hubie Oliver for sixth and 134 to pass Mike Bell for fifth.
Arizona has turned the ball over nine times during its three-game losing streak, one of many reasons for the skid. For the year the Wildcats have 15 giveaways, tied with USC for the most in the Pac-12, and their minus-2 turnover margin is third-worst in the conference.
Opponents have turned those 15 turnovers into 64 points, accounting for nearly 23 percent of the scoring Arizona has allowed. Those miscues—along with continued poor play on special teams—have also contributed to the Wildcats regularly having a worse average starting position than their foes.
Thankfully, Oregon State isn’t exactly a ball hawk. The Beavers have forced only six turnovers, just two in their four Pac-12 games. They don’t turn it over much, either, with four for the season and just a single interception thrown in league play.
Speaking of Homecoming ...
Having Oregon State be the Homecoming opponent works out great for many reasons, not just because the Beavers have been the worst team in the Pac-12 for several years (though they have won their last two road games). It also marks the return of two former Wildcats.
Oregon State’s starting center is Nathan Eldridge, who played for Arizona from 2016-18. He started every game as a freshman and sophomore before suffering a season-ending knee injury in training camp last year. He graduated early and was able to play immediately with the Beavers.
Eldridge’s position coach is Jim Michalczik, who ran Arizona’s offensive line under Rich Rodriguez from 2013-17. Under Michalczik, the Wildcats averaged 200-plus rushing yards four times and led the conference in 2016 and 2017.