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Arizona football: 3 surprises and 3 disappointments from nonconference play

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An up and down first three games featured plenty of plot twists

arizona-wildcats-football-surprises-disappointments-nonconference-pac-12-2019-analysis Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

It seems like there’s one thing that the Arizona Wildcats are consistently good at: being unpredictable as all hell.

After a loss where it looked outmatched against an inferior Hawaii team and yet still almost won, Arizona eviscerated NAU for a half but then let the Lumberjacks score 28 points on it in the second half. With all that, there was some pessimism going into the Texas Tech game ... so naturally the Wildcats played their best game and scored a key Power 5 win at home.

There have been plenty of surprises and disappointments in a mere four weeks and three games for the Wildcats. As we head into Arizona’s second bye week, with the Pac-12 slate on the other side, here are three of the biggest surprises and disappointments of Arizona’s non-con play.

Surprise: Receiver depth

Going into the season, it looked like UA would have a gaping crater at the wide receiver position. Three of Khalil Tate’s favorite targets from last year were gone, and almost nobody below those three saw serious playing time. Even without the best player in the 2019 recruiting class, Arizona’s young receivers have proven themselves.

In just three games, 13 players have already caught a pass. Eight of those guys are listed as receivers on the depth chart, and one is listed as a tight end. Players like Tayvian Cunningham, Stanley Berryhill III, Brian Casteel, Cedric Peterson and Jamarye Joiner have proven themselves against weaker pass defenses.

It’s true that Arizona has learned already that the running game is how this team is going to be successful, but the fact that it has a successful passing game is a huge relief and could buy this team an extra win in Pac-12 play.

Disappointment: Another one-possession loss

One of my personal favorite ways to measure a coach’s ability strictly on the field is in their performance in close games. One-possession games can easily flip, and going .500 in one-possession games should be the bare minimum for success. Last season, the Wildcats went 2-4 in those games, and that cost Arizona a bowl. This year, the count is already 0-1.

The Arizona-Hawaii game was one of the craziest games of the season thus far, and it honestly should’ve been a blowout for the Warriors. Hawaii turned the ball over six times, and without those extra drives, Arizona probably gets blown out of the water. Nevertheless, the Wildcats crawled their way back into the game, and managed to fall one yard short in the 45-38 loss.

Without the crippling first quarter and some huge errors littered throughout the game, Arizona could have won this game. The Wildcats couldn’t capitalize on six turnovers, and as a result Kevin Sumlin is 2-5 in one-possession games and 5-3 in all others. The former has to change, the latter hopefully doesn’t.

Surprise: The defense in the Texas Tech game

If you polled every Arizona fan in the stadium just before kickoff against Texas Tech on what the score of the game would be, I don’t think you would get a single vote for 14 points or less for the Red Raiders. Of course, the Wildcats did just that, and on a night where their offense took their time, it proved to be the difference.

A few days later, this achievement has been marred a little bit. Tech QB Alan Bowman suffered a somewhat serious shoulder injury later in the game, and though he toughed it out and played, it might have seriously hurt the Red Raiders. Plus, while Texas Tech only managed 14 points, it still racked up a moderate 415 yards. This performance wasn’t smoke and mirrors at all, but it was helped by the injury and Tech spacing their yards out poorly.

That doesn’t matter too much, though. When your defense is universally considered one of the worst in the Power 5, ANY solid performance is an achievement. Nobody expected them to do well except themselves, and in the end they proved the entire fanbase and the entire nation wrong in that one game. This defense should be proud of themselves, and hopefully they can keep this going.

Disappointment: The defense in the Hawaii and NAU games

For as great as the defense looked against the Red Raiders, against the two less talented teams on their schedule, this defense looked like the poor unit Arizona fans have come to expect this decade.

Against the Warriors and Lumberjacks, the Wildcats gave up 43 points and 519 yards on average. To be completely fair, a quarter of those numbers come from the second half against Northern Arizona where the Wildcats had completely let off the gas and it ultimately didn’t hurt them except in the statline. Still though, that kind of defensive performance just can not be tolerated in a program that wants to win often.

It’s hard not to be tempted by what Arizona did to Texas Tech and believe this unit has turned a new leaf. However, they’re gonna need to shut down at least a couple of high-flying teams from the Pac-12 for me to believe that this atrocious defense is done forever. There’s still a good chance that the Hawaii loss could directly cause Arizona to miss a bowl, and nobody wants that to happen.

Surprise: Heavy use of the running game

It’s almost impossible not to argue that Arizona’s running back corps is the best on the roster, and arguably the best in the Pac-12, at least in terms of depth. The coaching staff clearly thinks so, as they’ve started to lean on the running game and it’s already paying dividends.

Against Hawaii, a team that looked completely unfocused started the game with five passing attempts, and ultimately ended the game with 39 passes compared to 32 rushes. Against NAU, when the offense barely had to care after ten minutes, the tally shifted more in Arizona’s favor, with 46 rushes to 28 passes. Against Texas Tech though, the Wildcats made it clear that they were going to lean on Tech over the ground until they stopped the ‘Cats, and they never did. Arizona ran the ball 61 times against Tech, just throwing 23 times.

To be clear, the running backs deserve credit for being such a force. J.J. Taylor, Gary Brightwell, Nathan Tilford, Bam Smith, Khalil Tate, and others have made this running game a buzzsaw. The offensive coaching staff deserves credit for learning how often to use that buzzsaw quickly. If they had learned that before the Hawaii game, we could be talking about a 3-0 exciting Arizona squad. If this running game keeps taking up most of the offense’s plays, then Arizona has a chance to completely recover from that Hawaii loss.

Disappointment: Special teams

I mentioned close games earlier, and while it’s a bit of a cliche, special teams are one of the things that turns close games. After a mediocre season last season, it looks the Wildcats have taken a step back.

To be fair, it was reasonable to assume this would happen all the way back in December. Grad transfer punter Dylan Klumph left, and one of the two field goal kickers in Josh Pollack also graduated. That left JJ Taylor to return kicks and Lucas Havrisik for both kickoffs and field goals. Havrisik has long proved himself as an asset on kickoffs, as he’s bound to kick the vast majority of his kickoffs out of the end zone. Unfortunately, he isn’t very accurate in field goals, and that seems to have remained; he’s already missed a PAT this year and is just 1 for 2 on field goals.

There’s a chance for Havrisik to turn this around, especially since we’re going off a very small sample size right now. He has the burden of proof though, and as the rest of the unit either breaks in new players (punting) or can barely see the field (kick returns), Havrisik has to improve and be the standard-bearer. If he fails to do that, it could be another agonizing season for the ‘Cats.