A change at defensive coordinator didn’t have anywhere close to the desired effect for the Arizona Wildcats. If anything, Arizona’s defense looked even worse on Saturday than it had during the first three games of what is now a four-game losing streak following a 56-38 home loss to the Oregon State Beavers.
The Wildcats (4-5, 2-4 Pac-12) gave up 35 points and 385 yards in the first half, yielding 28 points alone in the second quarter, and allowed 572 yards to the Beavers (4-4, 3-2).
Not exactly the kind of performance coach Kevin Sumlin was expecting after he fired defensive coordinator Marcel Yates and linebackers coach John Rushing on Sunday, replacing them with analysts (and former UA players) Chuck Cecil and Hank Hobson.
Arizona recorded three sacks, its most since last November, but OSU was 7 for 10 on third down and ran for 244 yards and five touchdowns. Beavers quarterback Jake Luton threw for 328 yards and three TDs on 20-of-26 passing while Pac-12 receiving leader Isaiah Hodgins had seven catches for 150 yards and two scores.
The latest dismal defensive effort—Arizona has allowed 189 points during its four-game skid—overshadowed a fairly strong offensive game that saw QBs Khalil Tate and Grant Gunnell again rotate series until Gunnell took over for good in the third quarter, possibly a sign of things to come for the remainder of this near-lost season.
Tate was 7 of 12 for 109 yards but his drives only resulted in a pair of red zone field goals in the first quarter. Gunnell was 19 of 29 for 269 yards and two TDs and led Arizona on five of its seven scoring drives, including TDs on his first four series.
“He’d already showed us what he could do against UCLA,” receiver Cedric Peterson said, referring to when Gunnell made his first career start and threw for 352 yards and three TDs.
J.J. Taylor added 167 yards from scrimmage, including seven catches for 89 yards, both career highs, and two rushing TDs.
“His effort was phenomenal,” Sumlin said. “He’s a leader by example.”
But it all came down to the defense. Or, rather, the near complete lack thereof.
Down 35-19 at the half, Arizona went three-and-out to start the third quarter and then gave up a TD for the fifth straight drive. Jermar Jefferson scored from one yard out to make it 42-19 with 10:33 left in the third quarter.
Gunnell came in for the Wildcats’ second drive and quickly got Arizona back into the end zone, though Peterson breaking multiple tackles on a 35-yard TD pass with 8:42 left in the third didn’t hurt. Arizona failed on the two-point try to trail 42-25.
Oregon State then went three-and-out, just its second drive without points, aided by a Myles Tapusoa sack on third down, and Arizona capitalized with a 10-play drive with Gary Brightwell scoring on a 10-yard run. Lucas Havrisik missed the PAT, though, leaving the deficit at 42-31 with 3:20 left in the third.
Brightwell finished with 92 scrimmage yards and two TDs on 11 touches.
Arizona forced another punt and, after starting at its own 1-yard line, got inside the OSU 25 before stalling. The Wildcats lined up to go for it on fourth down but, after a timeout, opted for a 39-yard field goal that Havrisik missed to the right with 11:16 left.
That allowed OSU to lock up the game via a 25-yard TD pass from Luton to Hodgins to make it 49-31 with 7:58 left. That drive was aided by a pair of personal fouls on Arizona, a roughing call on Colin Schooler and a horse collar on Tony Fields II.
Arizona pulled within 49-38 with 4:11 left on a 2-yard Taylor run, but the Wildcats couldn’t recover the onside kick and OSU scored three plays later on a 24-yard run by Tyjon Lindsey.
Sumlin said he was hoping for more energy with his staff changes, but that wasn’t apparent early. With a half-empty stadium at kickoff, OSU scored a TD on the opening drive by going 75 yards in nine plays without much resistance. Hodgins caught a 21-yard TD pass from Luton to give the Beavers a 7-0 lead just 3:32 into the afternoon.
Arizona quickly marched down the field on its first possession, aided by an 18-yard Brian Casteel catch on 4th-and-1 from near midfield. But the Wildcats had to settle for a 23-yard Havrisik field goal after a holding penalty negated a short TD run Taylor.
The Wildcats’ second drive was almost a carbon copy of the first, with a big play to get into the red zone and then quick offensive regression. The result was a 27-yard Havrisik field goal to make it 7-6 with 2:33 left in the first half.
OSU made it 14-6 on a 1-yard Jefferson run with 14:04 left in the second quarter, capping a 10-play, 75-yard drive.
Gunnell came in for Arizona’s third series, which resulted in a 38-yard TD reception by Brightwell in which he caught a swing pass, juked a Beaver out of his Nikes and showed off his self-proclaimed 4.3 speed up the sideline. The Wildcats went for two, but an ineligible man downfield penalty negated the conversion and Gunnell’s pass on the second try was batted down.
That chasing of points would later come back to bite Arizona.
The Beavers upped their lead to 21-12 with 9:02 left in the first half on a 5-yard Jefferson run, OSU’s third 75-yard scoring drive in four possessions.
Arizona pulled within 21-19 with 5:41 left before the half on a 3-yard Taylor TD run, which was fitting because he had his face mask pulled on at least three times on the drive with the last two getting flagged. The Wildcats also benefitted from a pair of roughing penalties on Gunnell, with at least one of the questionable variety.
But OSU got its nine-point edge back not long after, with Artavis Pierce scoring on a 4-yard run with 2:31 left in the first half to lead 28-19.
Then Arizona had its first empty drive of the game, mostly due to Tate taking back-to-back sacks that forced a punt with just over a minute left. The Beavers capitalized, with Luton hitting tight end Noah Togiai for a 23-yard score and a 35-19 lead with four seconds remaining.
Arizona goes into its final bye of the season before heading to Oregon on Nov. 16. The Wildcats must win two of their last three in order to become bowl-eligible.
“We just need to pick it up and stay together as a team,” Taylor said. “When stuff like this happens, a lot of people like to point fingers.”