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What we learned from Arizona’s win vs. NAU

NCAA Football: Northern Arizona at Arizona Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Wildcats beat the NAU Lumberjacks 65-41 on Saturday in front of 40,741 at Arizona Stadium.

Our recap can be found here, and here is what we learned.

The defense still has a lot to prove

There might not have been anything the Wildcats could have done in this one to show they have righted the ship defensively, but wherever that bar was, they fell way short.

Arizona cornerback Jace Whittaker had a simple breakdown of the defense’s effort against NAU.

“We gotta get better,” he said flatly.

The 41-point total is a little deceiving since NAU did a lot of its damage against Arizona’s second- and third-stringers, but the way the Lumberjacks moved the ball wasn’t all that different from the Hawaii game. Receivers were open and the pass rush was non-existent.

NAU quarterback Case Cookus threw for 373 yards and two touchdowns, and was only sacked once. The Lumberjacks went 9 for 15 on third down and put up 28 points in the second half.

“There’s a myriad of things right now,” UA coach Kevin Sumlin said of the defensive issues. “You look at the final score, you give up 41 points. You got an experienced quarterback, guys ran by us in the second half. ... We got a lot of different guys in there, but still. These guys knew what the challenge was coming into this game where some of these guys were going to play. We couldn’t get off the field again on third down. We were better on third down offensively, but we’ve got to get keep (getting better). I thought Jalen (Harris) played hard, got to the quarterback a couple of times, but our coverage, guys were running free. There was little to no pressure on the quarterback, and at the end guys jumped in and out of gaps and hadn’t played much and gave up 41 points. ... That’s just not acceptable.”

The only saving grace right now is that the Wildcats have a knack for creating turnovers. Two more interceptions—one by Whittaker and one by Christian Roland-Wallace—gives Arizona eight takeaways on the season.

Texas Tech, which has thrown for over 700 yards this season, comes into Arizona Stadium next weekend, and the Wildcats have done nothing to show they are capable of slowing down even just a decent passing offense.

Penalties are a problem

Arizona committed 11 penalties for 142 yards against NAU, as they continue to average north of 10 per game.

Several extended NAU drives, like when Christian Young was penalized 15 yards on fourth down for unsportsmanlike conduct. Then there was Derrion Clark getting ejected for targeting after leading with his helmet as Cookus slid after scrambling.

Arizona’s defense already has a ton of problems as we’ve already noted, and when you throw penalties into the equation, it’s hard to see how the Wildcats can beat anyone without a world-beating performance by their offense. (Which, by the way, set a program record for first-half points with 51.)

“Selfishness,” Sumlin said of the penalties. “I mean, things after the play, drawing attention to yourself, right?. ... In a team situation, it’s never about you. It’s about us. It’s what it says down there. And then things that go on that you draw attention to yourself, that’s not right and we’re not going to tolerate that. This is what we talked about. That selfish-type attitude bleeds over into other areas. And when you need to do your job, we’re counting on you to do your job. And those those type of penalties hurts all and, trust me, that’s getting fixed as we speak.”

Tayvian Cunningham is quickly emerging

The former track star was the last addition to the 2019 recruiting class, but he is proving to be the most impactful.

The junior college product caught three passes for 58 yards and two touchdowns against NAU, including a 47-yard bomb from Khalil Tate less than two minutes into the game. That came after Cunningham hauled in four passes for 65 yards against Hawaii.

“He’s fast,” Sumlin said. “He just ran right by everybody on the first touchdown. He continues to build confidence and that’s part of it. He’s a guy that he’s really kind of an off-and-on football and track guy. Legitimate track speed, legitimate track opportunities in the Pac-12, and he is getting better. He got here for fall camp and he has gotten better every week, understanding technique, route running and his confidence is growing. You can see it every week, and our confidence in him is growing and I think obviously our quarterbacks’ confidence are growing in him.

“I can remember we came to camp and Khalil is saying, ‘this guy, I gotta let this ball go. I can’t hang on to it because he outrun run it.’ The first touchdown is a designed situation against their coverage where you kind of freeze one safety and he’s one-and-one and he just ran right by him. And the thing about him too is he’s made some tough catches, made them in Hawaii in traffic.”

Cunningham also got some run as a kick returner Saturday, returning one for 23 yards. That is a role he thrived in at the junior college level, where he took six kickoffs to the house.

“We’re looking at a bunch of other guys back there in kickoff return as we move into the season and I thought they did a nice job of operating back there,” Sumlin said.

The other receiver who stood out was Drew Dixon, who had four catches for 46 yards and a touchdown. His most impressive play was when he caught a pass on a crossing route on third and long and made a few defenders miss to pick up the first down.

True freshman Boobie Curry was not targeted for the second straight week, and seems like a lock to redshirt at this point.

Gary Brightwell actually does have 4.3 speed

During fall camp, Brightwell said he could run a 4.3 40-yard dash, and that he is the fastest player on the team.

He wasn’t lying.

The junior burst for a 94-yard touchdown, tying the second-longest run in program history.

“Gary showed something tonight that people didn’t know (he had),” Sumlin said.

Arizona flexed its running back depth Saturday, with five players—Brightwell, J.J. Taylor, Nathan Tilford, Michael Wiley and Bam Smith—receiving at least five carries and no player receiving more than 10. All together, they rushed for 431 yards.

Running back is arguably Arizona’s deepest position group, with each ballcarrier offering a unique skill set. Sumlin said finding playing time for all of them is a problem, albeit a good one.

“There’s four or five legitimate guys that are home-run hitters and can catch, can play and definitely I think you saw that tonight,” he said. “We’re trying to get our best personnel on the field. You saw more two-back sets tonight, getting those guys on the field, whether it’s in an offset I-formation or motion-type situations. They’re just as dangerous as anybody on swing routes, bubble screens, things like that and draw attention and get people out of the box to hand it off to another back.”

Arizona, which ran of the ball 46 times, used the ground game to set up the passing game—which was not the case against Hawaii—and it helped Tate get off to a scintillating start, as he completed his first eight passes.

“It brings a lot of energy,” Brightwell said of running the ball. “It does make it easy.”

Grant Gunnell is the real backup QB

If Tate were to suffer a short-term injury, true freshman Grant Gunnell seems like the one who would take over at quarterback, not junior Rhett Rodriguez.

Gunnell replaced Tate in the second quarter and went 9 for 11 for 151 yards and three touchdowns, including a beautiful 75-yard touchdown pass to Thomas Reid III deep down the middle.

“For him to go in there in the second quarter when the game is still going, the crowd’s up, and going with the first offensive line, I thought he operated (well),” Sumlin said. “He moved the team, moved the ball, three touchdowns. I didn’t like when he turned back and ran into the defense when he scrambled. He’s gotta learn to run to the pylon and not back into the teeth of defense. He was having fun. I thought our players responded when he was out there. Guys made plays for him, but he looked pretty calm for a freshman, threw some good balls and some guys made some plays for him too. I’ll look back at the tape and we gave him some easy throws early. He took the checkdowns, he took some swing passes, he threw crossing routes underneath and guys made yards for him after that.”

Rodriguez later entered in the second half when the game was well out of reach. If for whatever reason Tate has to miss a game or two, Gunnell could start and still redshirt, assuming he does not exceed four games.

If Tate gets injured and has to miss a lengthy amount of time, then Arizona would have to decide if burning Gunnell’s redshirt is something it is willing to do, though hopefully it will not come down to that.

It will be interesting to see when Gunnell next sees the field. It could be a while, since three winnable games are coming up.

The ZonaZoo is capable of showing up

It would have been easy for UA students to punt on this game, seeing it was a late kickoff, Arizona was coming off a bad loss, and the opponent was an FCS school.

But props to them because they nearly filled the ZonaZoo.

That bodes well for next weekend when Arizona has a big game against Texas Tech, which some view as a must-win for UA’s bowl-game aspirations.

“My office looks right down right in front of where everybody gets in the ZonaZoo, so I want to thank the students, who were awesome,” Sumlin said. “They were lining up outside going both ways up the street, and they’re loud, behind us and talking and cheering guys on. I thought particularly on third downs and things like that, we got a couple calls from offsides and some penalties against them. But I really thought that fans were into it in, and particularly ZonaZoo was into it.

“Hopefully next weekend we can we can turn it up another notch. I understand it’s whiteout. So I’m starting my campaign already to make sure that everybody’s there.”