Despite being without starting quarterback Khalil Tate and starting running back J.J. Taylor, the Arizona Wildcats topped the UCLA Bruins 20-17 on Saturday at Arizona Stadium.
The Wildcats improve to 3-1 overall and 1-0 in the Pac-12, one of three Pac-12 teams unbeaten in conference play.
Our recap can be found here, and here is what head coach Kevin Sumlin had to say after Saturday’s victory:
On why Grant Gunnell started at quarterback instead of Khalil Tate: (Grant has) gotten plenty of reps in the last couple weeks. We had a bye week, right? So Khalil was not able to go the week before. He and J.J. (Taylor) really sat out the bye week and then J.J. just didn’t look good up until Thursday. The way we practice, Thursday is more of a walkthrough then Friday. And then Friday...we’re going full speed. ... Khalil did practice Tuesday, did some 7-on-7, did a little bit more Wednesday, did the walk through Thursday, but yesterday was not a good day. He had a hamstring that was healing up. We ran him in the pool. He’s got an ankle too.
“And to be effective the way he needed to be, we just didn’t think he was going to be able to do that. And fortunately in this situation, Grant and Rhett got all the reps a week ago during the bye week. And then, man, Grant got a lot of reps this week, so we went with those guys.”
On the performance of Grant Gunnell, who went 29 for 44 for 352 yards and a touchdown: “The first thing you look at with a true freshman quarterback is number one, poise. How he handled situations. I thought he was very, very mature how he handled things, how he went about his business. Second thing that’s probably the biggest plus is zero turnovers. ... We talked about at the hotel before we came over, ‘hey, look, it’s not on Grant. It’s on the 10 other guys that are on the field to make him make this thing work tonight. We gotta block, we gotta protect, we gotta hang on to the ball, we gotta fight for every yard, and that’s what they did.
“We struggled early running the ball because they just the loaded box and dared him to throw. So we ran the perimeter, got around early, that was our plan. They stretched it out a little bit, but they were running the linebackers through and basically said, ‘hey, look, young guy, without your two best offensive players we’re not going to just let you guys run the ball and stay back here. We’re going to make him throw it.’ And he missed a couple things, but he managed the game well, not a lot of miscues with delay of games, things like that happen in those pressures situations from a freshman quarterback. So I think this is a great experience. Primetime TV, true freshman starts his first game against a conference opponent, to come out and win in a close game, we got some things to clean up but obviously he’s got a bright future.”
On running back Bam Smith, who had five catches for 99 yards and a 75-yard TD: “He’s a dynamic player. You look at what happened, we had some guys pretty beat up from from two weeks ago. Gary (Brightwell) really didn’t do much the week before, kinda practiced this week, he was a little nicked up. You saw (Michael) Wiley early in the game. We’ve got confidence in our running backs. They’ve all played. (Nathan) Tilford came in early in the game and really is a change of pace back. ... So it was running back by committee, which it’s been this year. But a lot of guys when they say, ‘well, you got four running backs,’ a lot of people say that and don’t have one. We got we got four or five guys that we feel comfortable with playing at any time, in any game and a lot of positions. Whether it’s spread out because they can catch the ball and they can run it. So as we talked about two weeks ago, what we want to do is try to get our best personnel on the field. And obviously our running backs are part of that.”
Sumlin on successfully icing UCLA’s kicker in the final moments: “You don’t get extra timeouts in overtime, right? So you got them in your pocket, I can’t take them home and bring them to the next game. But probably the biggest decision was not to use the last timeout on the next kick. That’s all luck of the draw.”
On Tony Fields and fellow linebackers Colin Schooler and Anthony Pandy: “He’s been playing great. ...Those guys are feeding off each other. And they love playing football. And I think there’s there’s a little competition in that room between those three guys. They play well together, but it gives us some flexibility because I think they know that .... against certain sets, we can’t put all three of those guys out there in the field in a covered situation, like at the end of the game. They got a corner route on us from their hybrid tight end. And I think they know that and so they’re ready to go, and they like playing football and I think they give our team some juice, but they also give each other juice because they know that whoever’s playing good, playing the best, we’re gonna leave those two out there.”
On punter Matt Aragon’s performance: “Yeah, I wrote down two or three things here, the things that we talked about, how you win close games. We had zero turnovers, right. He had five (punts) for 47.4, which we outpunted them. ... And then the big deal was they didn’t get a kickoff return because Lucas (Havrisik) kicked it out every time. And they had two punt returns for 11 yards. They were leading the country.
“So with the exception of the missed field goal at the beginning of the game, I thought our special teams outperformed theirs and that was a goal coming in this game. ... I thought Aragon did what he needed to do. I would have liked to knock one down in there inside the 10, but he flipped the field, gave them some long fields.”
On if he was happy with the open-field tackling: “I don’t know if anyone’s ever satisfied with that. We didn’t wrap up a couple times, hit a couple guys. I was satisfied with the effort to get there. I thought our secondary was extremely aggressive in pass breakups and some really close calls. I mean, guys were on top of people. We only had a couple times where we had (left) guys wide open. So from that standpoint, I thought our coverage was good because they were aggressive at the moment of truth, I call it. The ball’s there and they played it. We’ve gotten better at that than last year, but this game now is a spread game.
“We gotta be able to tackle better. Obviously we tackled Tech pretty well. I don’t think we were like that tonight, but I did think...the effort even after the missed tackle from the other guys running to the ball eliminated a lot of big plays. And that’s what the defense is about. You’re gonna miss some. We got to be better tacklers, but all in all I thought the effort from the 10 other guys to get the guy on the ground and not let it be a humongous played was important, and that’s what we have to improve on our defense, and I think we’re doing that.”
On Tate and Taylor’s health heading into next week: “We don’t know. Don’t know yet. We’ll see what happens on Monday. We don’t practice tomorrow. So we’ll have guys that come in for treatment, get a look at them, we’ll watch this tape and then we’ll assess them as we go next week. So I think the thing that you have now as a team is confidence when you can win a game like that. And going on the road is different with some younger guys, but I think those guys walk away as a team with confidence that you can win conference games. And we’re not going to put those guys in harm’s way with the type of injuries that they have because those guys are explosive players. When you have ankle or leg injuries like that, what you don’t want is for something that just nags on for the whole year.”