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What we learned from Arizona’s loss to Oregon State

arizona-wildcats-quarterbacks-tate-gunnell-pro-football-focus-25th-fbs-rankings-2019 Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats were thrashed by the Oregon State Beavers 56-38 on Saturday at Arizona Stadium to fall to 4-5 overall and 2-4 in the Pac-12.

Our full recap can be found here, coach Kevin Sumlin’s postgame comments can be read here, and here are some additional takeaways:

The defense is hopeless

Any hope that interim defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil could come in and energize this unit was quickly squashed on Oregon State’s opening drive, when it cruised 75 yards on nine plays for a touchdown.

That was just the beginning of a first half in which the Beavers gained 385 yards and posted 35 points, their most ever in a Pac-12 road game. OSU scored touchdowns on six of its first seven drives and wound up with 56 points, 572 yards, and a 70 percent conversion rate on third down.

Aside from a pair of third-down blitzes, one of which led to an incompletion, you would have never guessed that Arizona’s defense had someone new calling the shots.

The pass rush was pretty much non-existent, the Beavers were continually running for healthy chunks of yards, and their receivers were often left wide open, thanks to several instances of miscommunication, one of which led to a back-breaking touchdown that gave the Beavers a 16-point lead with four seconds left in the first half.

And somehow Pac-12 leading receiver Isaiah Hodgins was often the one the Wildcats forgot to cover, as he finished with seven catches for 150 yards and two touchdowns.

Here are some other OSU stat lines to digest:

  • QB Jake Luton: 20 for 26 for 328 yards and three touchdowns
  • RB Artavis Pierce: 15 carries for 114 yards and a touchdown
  • RB Jermar Jefferson: 22 carries for 105 yards and a touchdown

It is so late in the season that it is hard to imagine Arizona’s defense becoming decent at this point. The personnel is what it is and there is only so much you can change schematically from week to week, which Sumlin basically conceded Monday when he said he was hoping Cecil and Hank Hobson could provide a spark, not wholesale changes, to the defense.

It turns out they brought neither.

Go with Gunnell

The two-quarterback system was in place for this one. Initially, at least.

Khalil Tate started and was extremely sharp early, making some pinpoint throws across the middle, completing five of his first seven passes for 86 yards.

But he finished 7 for 12 for 109 yards, wasn’t much of a threat with his legs, and continued his bad habit of taking some costly sacks that ruined once-promising drives.

Meanwhile, freshman Grant Gunnell entered in the third series of the game and was terrific, going 19 for 29 for 269 yards and two touchdowns. The two things that really stood out were his ability to extend plays with his legs as well an uncanny ability to know where his safety valve was when Oregon State blitzed.

A lot of times that was J.J. Taylor, who caught nine passes for 89 yards. Gunnell also threw a 38-yard touchdown to Gary Brightwell, who made a guy miss after catching a short pass in the flat.

“He made some mistakes and some reads as a freshman, but he used his legs today and no turnovers,” Sumlin said of Gunnell. “So from that standpoint, based on the blitzes that we were getting and the line that was in front of him, I thought he did about as good a job as he could do.”

By now, it is clear that Gunnell gives Arizona a real building block to move forward with. That is, if Sumlin and company are finally ready to give him the reins.

Considering Gunnell played the rest of the second half after Tate went 3-and-out to begin the third quarter could be a telling sign of what’s to come.

And it should be.

With a bowl game out of the picture (more on that in a sec), it’s time for the Wildcats to focus on the future.

Arizona left a ton of points on the board

While Arizona moved the ball well with Tate at the helm, the offense twice stalled in the red zone, forcing the Wildcats to settle for a pair of field goals on their first two drives.

Given how bad the defense was, it caused Arizona to be in a 14-6 hole early in the second quarter.

There were lots of other points Arizona left on the board. After Brightwell’s TD, the Wildcats opted to go for 2. They didn’t get it, keeping the score at 14-12 two minutes into the second quarter. (Why chase points that soon?)

Arizona failed another two-point conversion after Gunnell connected for a 35-yard touchdown for Cedric Peterson, keeping the score at 42-25 with eight minutes left in the third. That decision was head-scratching as well because kicking the XP would have made it a two-score game.

But maybe it does make sense that Sumlin went for 2. Lucas Havrisik missed an extra point later in the third quarter that would have trimmed Oregon State’s lead to 42-32 as well as a 39-yard field goal that would have made it an eight-point game with 11 minutes left in the fourth.

Another weird coaching decision? Arizona initially lined up to go for it on 4th-and-6, but Sumlin burned a timeout to send Havrisik out there for the attempt instead. Not the best time-management skills.

The bye week comes at a good time

Part of the reason Havrisik struggled so much, Sumlin said, is because he is not 100 percent healthy.

Center Josh McCauley and guard Bryson Cain got injured on the same play in the first series, meaning the Wildcats were down two starters for most of the game. (Three if you count Cody Creason, who Cain was already replacing to begin with.)

Jon Jacobs replaced Cain and got whistled for holding to negate a Taylor TD, forcing UA to settle for an early FG. Cain briefly reentered for third series before getting shaken up again.

Later, left tackle Donovan Laie suffered what appeared to be a leg injury and was replaced by true freshman Jordan Morgan.

Fortunately, all those guys will have extra time to heal this week as Arizona, mercifully, has a bye.

“Not just one week but two weeks for some of the guys who are struggling physically,” Sumlin said. “And the mental part becomes important too in a bye week, where you can practice and do some things schematically and make some decisions about where guys are and when they’re playing.”

J.J. never gives up

Even with the Wildcats trailing by multiple scores in the fourth quarter, Taylor was using every ounce of his 5-foot-6 frame to move the chains. On one instance, he violently trucked two defenders to pick up a first down.

It was an admirable display of perseverance.

“My mindset is to never give up,” Taylor said. “I don’t care what the score is. If we’re up by 50, down by 50 or it’s a tie game, it doesn’t matter. You gotta have love for the game and give it all you got.”

You bet Taylor’s highlight reel is going to be shown to the rest of the team if it feels like shutting down amid this four-game losing streak.

“He plays like that all the time, regardless of score, regardless of situation. That’s who he is,” Sumlin said. “You want to have 100 of those guys on your team. He’s a leader by example, doesn’t say much, but is extremely effective. And yes, you can point to that as here’s how you’d like for everybody to play.”

Arizona won’t be bowling

Unless Arizona miraculously beats No. 9 Utah or No. 7 Oregon in these next two games, its chances of reaching bowl eligibility are zilch.

The only thing the Wildcats have left to play for is pride, development, and the Territorial Cup. Oh, and if you’re Taylor, the love of the game.

The Desert Swarm throwbacks need to be permanent

Just look how freaking gorgeous they are:

Oregon State v Arizona Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images