At this early point in the 2019 season, the Arizona Wildcats’ record is .500 but its performances have been far from even. The season-opening loss at Hawaii was a mess all over, while last week’s win over NAU didn’t exactly calm fans’ fears after the defense gave up 41 points to an FCS school.
Now comes Texas Tech, an offensive juggernaut that will be Arizona’s biggest test by far. As our Adam Green noted, this game would serve as the tipping point one way or the other for the season since after this it’s nothing but Pac-12 games and most of those will see the Wildcats as underdogs.
They’re not favored in this game, either, for the record.
Here’s what you should be keeping an eye out for when Arizona and Texas Tech meet for the first time in 30 years.
Staying fresh on defense
Arizona’s issues on defense are well-chronicled, despite all the preseason talk of improved depth and experience. The Wildcats are allowing 6.78 yards per play and 43 points per game, with Hawaii and NAU treating them like it’s 7-on-7 passing league.
And neither of those teams moved particularly fast when they had the ball, unlike Texas Tech, which operates at a breakneck pace on offense.
Tech ran 95 plays in its season-opening win over Montana State, fourth-most of any FBS team in 2019. The Red Raiders averaged 81 offensive plays last year, compared to 75.3 for Arizona’s 2018 foes.
With that in mind, Arizona is going to have to cycle in as many players as it can on defense in order not to get worn down. This is particularly the case on the defensive line, where preseason talk of hockey-style shift changes up front hasn’t come to fruition.
Arizona threw in a lot of new defensive players during the second half against NAU, and the results were not good. It didn’t help that do-everything linebacker Colin Schooler sat out the second half to rest up, but still.
Avoiding mental mistakes
Arizona has been flagged for 21 penalties in two games, its 215 penalty yards most in FBS. With a defense as porous as they have, the last thing the Wildcats can afford to do is just give yardage to the opponent.
Penalties have been an issue under Kevin Sumlin, its 8.3 per game since the start of the 2018 season the most in the Pac-12. But it’s been the “selfish” infractions, as Sumlin calls them, that have been the most troubling.
Defensive back Christian Young has picked up three unsportsmanlike conduct penalties in two games, the double against NAU leading to an ejection, and receiver Stanley Berryhill III was flagged for an excessive celebration against Hawaii after—no joke—high-fiving some Arizona fans in the crowd after a touchdown catch.
The turnover battle
Arizona did not give the ball away against NAU, just the third time that’s happened in the Sumlin era. It picked off two passes, raising its takeaway total in two games to eight, tops in FBS, as is its plus-6 turnover margin.
Texas Tech, meanwhile, has yet to recover a fumble or intercept a pass while it has given the ball away twice.
The Wildcats are 5-4 since the start of 2018 when winning or tying the turnover battle, compared to 1-4 when giving the ball up more than they take it away.
Fighting for field position
While it’s entirely possible that every possession that doesn’t result in a turnover will end with a score of some kind, one defense or the other might somehow manage to force a punt or two. For Arizona, though, having to kick the ball away has been almost as bad as throwing a semi-deep interception.
Through two games, the Wildcats are averaging 35.6 yards per punt. That’s 124th out of 130 FBS teams, and way down from a year ago when graduate transfer Dylan Klumph averaged better than 42 yards per kick.
Fifth-year senior Matt Aragon started at Hawaii, but after averaging 34.6 yards on five punts he was replaced by true freshman Kyle Ostendorp against NAU. Ostendorp shanked his first kick but had 42-yarder on his second try.
Sumlin indicated that the two would compete this week during practice, one of several positions that are up for grabs on a week-to-week basis.
It’s officially a white out for Saturday’s game at Arizona Stadium, but apparently that only applies to the crowd, as the Wildcats will be donning blue jerseys to go with white helmets and white pants.
️ DRESS TO IMPRESS.— Arizona Football (@ArizonaFBall) September 12, 2019
️#BuildingTheA | #BearDown pic.twitter.com/FqU1jpEJbl
The promotion is more meant for the fans, with the school selling $10 tees for the occasion, but it will be interesting to see just how many people actually go along with the attire recommendation. And if the crowd is as bad as it was for the NAU game—the “announced” attendance was 40,471—they may have been better off going with a “Gray Out” to match the color of all the empty seats.
A reminder, for those who don’t recall what happened the last time Arizona football had a white out, back in September 2014: