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Ups and downs from Arizona’s loss to Oregon State

The Wildcats fall below .500 in a rough homecoming defeat

NCAA Football: Oregon State at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Wildcats were looking to get their swagger back on Saturday. While the Oregon State squad they were facing was much improved, the team was playing in very popular throwback uniforms on homecoming weekend, and this was their most winnable game left on the schedule.

Despite all those things that screamed “get-right game”, Arizona lost in a shootout, 56-38. It was a tough loss that basically ends a season that was already on the brink.

Still, there were positive takeaways as well, almost all in regards to the future. Here are three ups and three downs.

Up: Another strong performance from Grant Gunnell

Khalil Tate saw time in the first half, and looked really solid, but the future at quarterback is clearly Grant Gunnell, and he looked like a capable leader despite being a true freshman.

Gunnell finished with a performance of 19-for-29 for 269 yards, adding two touchdowns to the total and not turning the ball over once. Those aren’t world-beating stats, and Oregon State does have a pretty weak defense, but any good stats from a true freshman QB are worth celebrating. Gunnell is obviously less of a runner than Tate, but he actually did well on the ground, going for 17 yards on seven carries including sacks.

Even after the bye, there’s a chance that Tate still sees some snaps, especially as his senior season comes to a close. Either way, next fall Gunnell will be the full-time starter, and that is a reason for optimism, especially in Kevin Sumlin’s offense.

Down: The entire defense

It seemed like the defense had finally turned a corner. The defense had clearly improved in October, and after one too many weak performances, Marcel Yates was fired. With favorite son Chuck Cecil taking over on a throwback homecoming, it felt like this would be the time for improvement. Uh, so much for that.

Oregon State has a solid offense full of upperclassmen. but 56 points and 572 yards at home is hard to excuse. For as weak as this defense had been during Marcel Yates’ tenure, it clearly admired him and was playing its hearts out for his job over the last few weeks. If Cecil gets the permanent job, he could really build a solid unit in Tucson, but it’s clear that this defense was demoralized by Yates’ dismissal.

As strong as Arizona’s offense has been for over a decade, this team desperately needs improvement on the defensive side to be competitive. It looks like that won’t be starting until 2020 at the latest.

Up: Lots of players catching passes

I’ve mentioned this multiple times this season, but it really is impressive. Arizona’s glaring weakness entering the season was receiver depth, and they’ve turned that obvious hole into a strength that will remain in 2020.

Even with the move of Jamarye Joiner to the receiving corps, and with the added emphasis on passes to running backs, I would have projected Arizona to mostly throw to only four or five players. They’ve proven me wrong throughout the season, but the OSU game was probably the pinnacle. Twelve players caught 41 passes, with eight of them being wideouts.

The best pass-catcher was actually running back J.J. Taylor, who finished with seven catches for 89 yards. Still, players like Tayvian Cunningham, Joiner, Stanley Berryhill III, Cedric Peterson, and Brian Casteel made their mark, and the majority of those players will be back next season.

Down: Miscues on PATs

The special teams unit has easily been Arizona’s weakest this season, despite the defensive woes. There was mild improvement this weekend, but there’s still work to be done.

First, Arizona’s first two drives ended in red zone field goals, which ultimately proved to be what kept Oregon State ahead. Arizona had the chance to tie the game at 14 after a touchdown, and went for two, a decision I support. Unfortunately, the play didn’t work out, and Arizona wouldn’t get that close again. Later on, another two-point conversion failed, and Lucas Havrisik missed an extra point to put Arizona three points behind schedule.

Ultimately, three points didn’t decide the game, but Arizona’s red-zone issues led to the beginning of a terrible game for PATs.

Up: Punting might finally be fixed

Despite the despicable performance by the special teams this season, there was an area of improvement this season. Freshman punter Kyle Ostendorp didn’t have to do much on Saturday, but when he did do stuff, he finally showed an ability to flip the field that UA has missed for a long time.

It’s true that the Phoenix freshman only had two punts on Saturday. When one of those punts goes 51 yards and the other goes 44 though, that is worth a shout out. Ostendorp pinned OSU inside the 20 once on his two punts, and the coverage unit only allowed one return of 11 yards on the day.

I’m sure you can tell I’m reaching for a positive takeaway here, but any young player contributing is the best news possible at this stage of the season. Hopefully Ostendorp can keep this up until 2022 and beyond.

Down: Bowl hopes essentially over

Arizona was already in danger of missing a bowl with a rough schedule remaining, but this loss to Oregon State is almost certainly a death sentence. Thanks to the loss, Arizona will have to beat at least one top-ten team and Arizona State to go bowling.

The Wildcats could really use a bye week, and luckily for them, they will get one next Saturday. After that though, two wins in three games are necessary, and the schedule doesn’t suggest that is likely to happen. Arizona will first head to a top-ten Oregon team, where it will be heavy underdogs. Then, senior night will have the Wildcats face top-ten Utah, a team much more talented than them.

The Territorial Cup seems like a winnable game—except it’s in Tempe and Herm Edwards has become one of the best close-game coaches in the nation.

Maybe ASU is just weak enough for Arizona to spring a trap on them and win. Or maybe Oregon and Utah, two teams who have been seemingly snake-bitten against the Wildcats, might have a dud against UA.

Two of those unlikely events need to happen though, and it doesn’t seem like this team is talented enough to do so.

But hey Arizona fans, basketball season starts this week!