For the first time this season, Arizona looked like a strong team. The 28-14 victory over Texas Tech on Saturday night was the most fun UA has looked since last year’s shocking win over Oregon, and overall it’s hard not to feel that plenty of the concerns about this program have been allayed, at least temporarily.
It wasn’t a perfect game, though. There were many more ups than downs in the game, but here are four of each.
Up: Almost all of the defense’s performances
The headline for this game, in 72-point font, bolded and underlined, is how well this defense played. Coming into the game, defensive coordinator Marcel Yates was facing one of the hottest seats for any coach in the country. It was easy to see why, as the defense had failed to progress in his previous three years, and the team was allowing 43 points per game this season.
Needless to say, that changed this week in a big way. Texas Tech’s characteristically explosive offense was held to an average 411 yards, possessed the ball for just 25 minutes, punted seven times and and a good quarterback in Alan Bowman was picked off twice (by Anthony Pandy and Lorenzo Burns).
Compared to Yates’ usual defensive performances, this was a masterpiece. Does it excuse three-plus years of frustration on defense? No. But it’s something, and if Yates keeps this up, he may pull off the most amazing career turnaround I have ever seen. His players love him, and if this keeps up, the fans will too.
Down: Turnovers/slow start
I’m combining these two downs for two reasons. One is that the two were connected against Tech. The other is that I’ve been forced to write about both of these issues seemingly every week.
Arizona’s first half drives: punt, punt, interception, punt, an UGLY fumble, touchdown, punt, touchdown with missed PAT, missed FG, interception. Those three turnovers and four punts were not good (we’ll get to the kicking in a minute).
In particular, the fumble and Khalil Tate’s second interception were black marks. Tate didn’t handle a read option very well, and though he appeared to recover the fumble, a Tech defender wrestled it from him. Tate’s second interception was a terrible decision, and if it weren’t for a Red Raiders penalty, could’ve let TTU score before the half.
After that half, there were no turnovers and the Wildcats were downright fun. Still waiting on that complete game from this team, though.
Up: Running the goshdang ball (especially on that clinching drive)
It’s no secret that Arizona fans’ frustrations have had a lot to do with the emphasis on the passing game under Kevin Sumlin. That was not a problem on Saturday.
Arizona ran 84 plays against the Red Raiders. A mere 23 of those were pass plays, meaning 61 plays were rushing the ball. On those 61 rushes, the team racked up 314 yards, finishing with a respectable average of 5.1 yards per carry. Perhaps most encouraging is that Tate led the way, and that the team ran well without star J.J. Taylor.
Another incredible stat from the game is that Arizona’s last pass play of the game took place with 1:05 left in the third quarter. After that, Arizona gained 124 yards on the ground and scored the 15 points that clinched the game for them. Tate’s 124 rushing yards, combined with Gary Brightwell’s 85 and youngster Bam Smith’s electric 63, made it easy to see why Arizona’s running game is considered one of the best in the nation.
It’s also important to note how well the offensive line performed against a mildly underrated defense. With their help, Arizona’s rushing game dominated. Here’s to that continuing for nine, dare I say even 10 more games this year.
Down: Special teams
The defense looked phenomenal, and the offense looked like itself in the second half, but one phase of the game was noticeably funky, that being the special teams.
Arizona punter Matt Aragon, a Tucson native, wasn’t too great when he was asked to do his job in the first half, averaging 36.2 yards and dropping Tech inside its 20 only twice out of five attempts. The real concern has to be junior kicker Lucas Havrisik. Havrisik was characteristically good-to-great on kickoffs, allowing only one return on five kicks. Unfortunately, he missed his only field goal attempt, missed a point after on an admittedly bad snap, and knuckleballed another extra point through the uprights.
It’s true that special teams are hardly the most important part of a team’s success, and that Arizona has been average at best in that department for a while. Still, coordinator Jeremy Springer has got to get better performances out of his men if Arizona is gonna keep winning close games.
Up: Lots of players with receptions
We’ve been over the fact that Tate wasn’t asked to do much in the air, but when he was, he had plenty of help in his receiving corps.
Going into the season, receiver depth was seen as a fatal flaw for this team. To make matters worse, Boobie Curry, the jewel of the 2019 recruiting class, has been banged up and is yet to make his hotly anticipated debut. It hasn’t mattered too much. Despite there only being 14 completions to share, eight players got the ball.
Tayvian Cunningham, quickly becoming Tate’s favorite target, grabbed the most with five catches. Both Stanley Berryhill III and Jamarye Joiner grabbed two catches, with Berryhill scoring a touchdown. Of the five players with one reception, the stars were Cedric Peterson and Smith, with the two gaining 47 and 46 yards on their lone catches, respectively.
Arizona has proven that receiver depth is not a problem this year. There are other problems to fix, but them solving this issue without their four-star freshman is a great thing to see.
Down: Various nitpicks on defense
I can’t fill a paragraph with any legitimate complaints about this defensive performance. This is just for various nitpicks that you should absolutely not take seriously.
One bad sign was that the team was a bit iffy on third downs until late in the game. Ultimately, Tech was 7 for 17 which isn’t horrible. For as many receivers as Arizona got involved, Tech got even more, spreading 30 completions to 11 players. This is a much more passing-focused offense, though, and I can’t even get mad about a guy named McLane Mannix doing well.
That’s really all the bad things I can say about Yates’ defense on Saturday night. I hope I get to write a lot more segments like this in October and November.
Up: Old rivalry
It’s true that these teams have not faced off since 1989. It’s true that Lubbock is more than 600 miles east of Tucson. It’s true that the two haven’t shared a conference since 1956. It still felt fun watching these two get together again.
To be clear, this is not a rivalry. The teams meant 21 times from 1932 to 1959 as members of the Border Conference. Arizona was probably happy to see Tech leave for the more prestigious Southwest Conference; the Red Raiders went 18-2-1 against the Cats during that span. The two renewed their series in the 1970s with similar results, having Tech finish 7-1-1 in that span. After a split home-and-home 30 years ago, the two hadn’t met until Saturday.
I grew up in Amarillo, a couple hours from Lubbock, and was a diehard Texas Tech fan until the day I signed my application to UA. I only tell you this to say that these two share more than you think. Lubbock (and west Texas in general) is more like Arizona than east Texas. Tech has a long history of 7-5 and 8-4 seasons and almost no conference titles since it left the Border Conference (sound familiar?). Plus, in my unbiased opinion, each campus has a beautiful trademark of their architecture: TTU’s Spanish style and UA’s red brick on the Mall.
I’m not asking for these two to play every year. However, I think Arizona fans will miss playing the only other major team in the Southwest that they don’t loathe with all their being. Any Power 5 home-and-home is great in my books, but this one is a personal favorite, and I hope to see lots of cardinal and navy in Lubbock next year.
Down: Still work to do
As good as this win feels and looks, Arizona still needs to push its boulder up the hill a lot further.
Arizona’s Pac-12 opener against Chip Kelly’s struggling UCLA team seems promising, especially coming off a bye week. Assuming another strong performance there, which is not a guarantee, that still means this team needs to get three wins in the following games: at Colorado, vs. Washington, at USC, at Stanford, vs. Oregon State, at Oregon, vs Utah, at Arizona State.
Is that a feasible task? Yes, especially if this keeps up. However, the performance against the Red Raiders may have been an aberration, and this staff and roster needs to prove that this is the new normal. If it does, I can honestly see 7-5, which I would’ve considered unlikely even before the season. If this ends up Arizona’s best performance of the year ... I wouldn’t bet on making a bowl trip. Proof of concept can be the first step to an amazing run. Let’s see that happen.