College football is finally back for the Arizona Wildcats, but game number one ended in perhaps the worst way possible. After a crazy offense-driven game, Khalil Tate was tackled one yard shy of a game-tying touchdown, resulting in a 45-38 loss that could seriously jeopardize the season already.
Still, it wasn’t all bad, even though it’s hard not to argue that the bad outweighed the good. It was great to just watch college football—especially Wildcats football—after a long summer, and there were plenty of exciting moments throughout.
Here are five things I liked and five things I disliked from the Week 0 loss for UA.
Liked: Khalil Tate returning to the running game
It took much longer than it should have, but once Arizona started to use the running game, some familiar faces got in on the fun. J.J. Taylor was the only one of Arizona’s running backs to make a mark, but he didn’t have to carry too much of a load thanks to Tate’s first running performance of this magnitude since 2017.
Tate finished with 108 rushing yards, including a long of 31 and an 8.3 yards-per-carry average. That’s good enough to beat every rushing performance of his 2018 season, marking his best game on the ground since he gashed Oregon State for 206 yards in 2017. And yes, that includes the last play.
Tate was such a playmaker on the ground his sophomore year, it was nice to see him go to the well and damn near succeed at pulling off a miracle at the buzzer. If only that 108 could’ve been a 109.
For how prolific Arizona has been on the ground this decade, I would still rate this overall performance as a disappointment, but having Tate contribute is enough of a relief that hopefully Arizona can build upon. Getting 2017 Tate back is starting to look like a pipe dream, but so far 2019 Tate is an improvement on 2018 Tate, and that could be enough.
Disliked: Another slow start
Coming off the high that was the crazy Florida-Miami game back east, watching Arizona’s ice-cold first quarter was quite a shock. Arizona racked up a grand total of eight yards on its three possessions: two three-and-outs and an interception that wasn’t Tate’s fault.
Perhaps the most alarming part of this start was the play-calling during that first quarter. Kevin Sumlin and offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone started the season with four straight passes despite Arizona’s seemingly obvious strength being the run game. Those four throws ended with three incompletions and the interception. On the remainder of the passing plays in the quarter, Tate continued his bad habit of running out of bounds well short of the marker on third down. Sure, it’s better than an interception on a forced pass, but it’s clear that the memory of that 2018 injury is fresh on that Arizona sideline.
UA did get going once the second quarter rolled around. Still, just the same as last year, this was a close game that Arizona had tons of opportunities to win, and it probably would’ve been victorious had it been on the field for four quarters instead of three.
Liked: All those takeaways
Watching the game, I couldn’t decide if this was a Cole McDonald thing or Arizona defense thing, until Chevan Cordeiro came in and played much safer with the ball. I doubt Arizona can create six turnovers even once more this season, but it kept this team alive while the offense crawled to life, and it probably should’ve won the Wildcats this game.
The Wildcats picked off gunslinger McDonald four times in the first three quarters, and recovered two fumbles to boot. Tate threw two interceptions as well, giving Arizona a plus-4 turnover margin. Turnovers are one of the most luck-dependent parts of football, so it’s hard to call this a strength per se, but it’s looking like Arizona will need that luck this season.
A plus-4 turnover margin is just about one of the most promising signs you can see on a box score that indicates a team won the game. Unfortunately for UA, the points scored matter just a bit more. Let’s hope the ‘Cats can lead in both categories throughout the season.
Disliked: Giving up lots of big plays
For as bad as McDonald looked on those four interceptions, he absolutely gutted Arizona’s pass defense, especially in the first half. Including the picks (which count as incompletions), McDonald went 29-41 for 378 yards and four touchdowns. There were plenty of plays early where eight men in zone coverage left gaping holes on the field, which McDonald targeted with surgical accuracy.
McDonald really only had maybe five bad throws the whole game, but four of those went to Arizona, and that was enough for Cordeiro to enter the game, and while he didn’t have to do anything crazy in the air, he still went 5 for 7 for 58 yards and the game-winning score. Hawaii finished with 14 “chunk plays”, defined as 15-yard pass plays or 10-yard run plays.
This is not a new issue for the defense. Arizona hasn’t been good at stopping long throws for a very long time, and the rush defense has only recently improved thanks to Colin Schooler and Tony Fields II. It’s coordinator Marcel Yates’ fourth year, hopefully he can turn this around sooner rather than later.
Liked: Jamarye Joiner’s debut at receiver
Probably the one thing on the field that was just pure joy to watch, with no caveat, was Joiner leading the team in receptions. Joiner, a product of local Cienega High School, had been stuck on the lower end of the QB depth chart, before moving to wide receiver in the summer.
I don’t need to tell you how the transition went: the stats speak for me. Joiner caught four passes, tied with Tayvian Cunningham for the team high, and racked up 72 yards, behind only Stanley Berryhill III. Joiner also caught a wide-open touchdown pass in the second quarter. Joiner bobbled the ball a bit on his first two receptions, but you could see him gain confidence as the day progressed, and his natural athleticism was on display.
For a position where Arizona lost three of its best players from 2018, Joiner emerging is a huge victory, and it lets one of the best athletes on the team see the field. That’s a win-win, and hopefully it ends up being a successful marriage for both parties.
Disliked: Pass rush tactics
One of the prime movers behind the hype surrounding Arizona’s fall camp was the shift to a four-man defensive line. Arizona had one of the worst pass rushes in the nation last year, and with the D-line rebuilding a bit, this seemed like a necessary schematic change that could spur serious defensive improvement. How surprised was I and numerous others to see Arizona trot out a three-man rush for a disconcerting amount of the game.
As Arizona fell behind early, it was clear that the lack of pass rush was seriously hurting the secondary, which was already barely clinging on to their coverages. It would’ve been a disappointing sign had there been no news of a revamped rush from camp, but combined with the four-man buzz it was baffling and a legitimate mark against the coaching staff.
This is just something Sumlin and Yates have to fix NOW, and it makes it even stranger that they spent at least half the game not performing the shift that seemed to at least help the problem. Sure, the secondary needed as much help as it could get, but pressure on a quarterback can help even more than an eighth dropback defenders. We’ll see if this changes, for real this time.
Liked: All the wackiness of a true #Pac12AfterDark game
Chaos is what draws us all to college football, and boy did Week Zero have its share. Florida-Miami was all sorts of weird, but nothing could ever match #Pac12AfterDark.
We’ve already mentioned the eight total turnovers and an absolutely amazing ending, and the fact that there were 29 chunk plays between the teams. That doesn’t even cover everything though, with McDonald and Tate pulling out heroics and crippling gaffes on every other play, and Hawaii receiver Cedric Byrd II finishing with 224 yards on 14 catches. It doesn’t hurt that there were 83 points scored, clearing the over/under of 71 easily.
It always sucks to be on the losing end of such a close game where so much could’ve led to a victory, but objectively, whats a beautiful mess of a college football game. What a way to welcome the sport back.
Disliked: All the major mistakes
For as fun as this game was, it would’ve been a mildly exciting win for Arizona had it committed half as many critical errors. Whether it was the difficulty of playing so far away, the mildly suspicious way Arizona lost some of its warmup time or the coaching staff, the execution was just not there in critical moments.
Particularly jarring mistakes include, but aren’t limited to:
- The deflecting interception that bounced off Drew Dixon on a catchable ball
- Taylor struggling to field kickoffs twice, once almost giving up a safety
- Letting Byrd catch the ball over and over and over
- Tate throwing a brutal interception on what was looking like a game-tying drive late in the game
- Three consecutive offensive penalties on a field goal attempt that turned a 38-yarder all the way to a 53-yarder that Lucas Havrisik thankfully nailed
- The issues on the defensive front’s personnel
It’s the first week of the season, and nerves and rustiness are bound to happen. At this amount though, it’s a really troubling sight to see, especially for a second-year coach. The staff needs to put the players in better position to win, and the players have to take advantage. Arizona football shouldn’t be this hard to watch at times.
Liked: The numerous tributes to Dick Tomey
Dick Tomey is one of the most important coaches in the history of both Hawaii and Arizona. He of course tragically passed this offseason, and both teams paid tribute. Arizona wore “DT” stickers on their helmets, and Hawaii hosted the Tomey family before the game.
Both fanbases at the game getting to celebrate such a key figure in their respective program’s history was great to see, and helped lend a friendly connection between the teams as the game drew closer. It’s not too often college football lends a purely feel-good moment, but two of Tomey’s former teams meeting for such an exciting game honoring him is one of them.
Disliked: This penalty call
Yeah, they’ll flag you for high-fiving fans after a TD pic.twitter.com/SuxzAmDrod— CFB Gif'er (@CFBgifer) August 25, 2019
It didn’t affect the game at all, but I find it hard to call this unsportsmanlike in any way, shape, or form