Returning home from a brutal loss to Hawaii and coming off a bye week, the Arizona Wildcats desperately needed a win over FCS foe Northern Arizona.
Luckily for them, the offense was electric on their way to a 65-41 victory. While that score doesn’t look too sexy against an FCS foe, the win was sorely needed, and overall it was a success.
Here’s some ups and downs from the game.
Up: A fast start
Arizona’s first half on Saturday may have been the best half of football they’ve played in a long time. Even with the opponent being NAU, Arizona finished with a record 51 points in the first half, and finished the half with over 500 yards, all while limiting their opponents to 13 points.
This is big news simply because of how abysmal Arizona has looked in the first quarter and sometimes second quarter under Kevin Sumlin. It hasn’t held true in all games, and it mostly struck on the road, but any signs of preparation for the team in the first half is a good sign to me. Against the Lumberjacks, it probably wasn’t necessary to go for all those points, including 21 in the first seven minutes, but it was nice to see.
Going forward, the Wildcats are going to need to be ready to go in the first half. Next week’s Texas Tech game should be a fun matchup, but UA will have to be on their A-gam from minute one. That’s not even mentioning their five Pac-12 road games this season. Keep this up guys.
Down: Letting off the gas late
Unfortunately, Arizona still could only keep themselves in fifth gear for half of the game, as the second half saw the team get outscored 28-14 and end the night allowing 41 total points to NAU.
Is this completely fair? No. The team didn’t have any desire to run up the score against the Lumberjacks, and that’s fine. I don’t think many UA fans would want to see the ‘Cats hang 100 on NAU, no matter how fun it would be to watch. Still, with how complete the team looked in the first half, a better second half would have made me and the rest of the UA community much more confident.
There are still a lot of positives for this half. U of A only had four possessions and scored on half of them despite not overtly trying to score more and playing a lot of reserves. Christian Roland-Wallace got an interception as well, the ‘Cats second of the game. This likely isn’t a huge problem, but Arizona has to play great for sixty minutes against the rest of their schedule.
Up: The running game
While the running game looked pretty good against Hawaii, it felt underutilized for a good portion of the game. That problem evaporated against the Lumberjacks with the team rushing 46 times on 74 plays and ten different players getting a carry.
Despite only getting 10 carries, star J.J. Taylor hit the 100 yard mark, finishing with 102 of them along with a touchdown. Ultra-talented Nathan Tilford grabbed six carries, and went for 40 yards on those carries. Bam Smith, Michael Wiley, Nazar Bombata, and receiver Brian Casteel also got touches on the ground.
The undisputed king of the ground game on Saturday though was Gary Brightwell. Despite a mere five touches (fifth-most on the night), Brightwell finished with 141 yards. Of course, 94 of those yards came on a thrilling touchdown in the first quarter, but that still leaves him with 47 yards on his other 4 carries.
If even half of Arizona’s ultra-deep running back corps keeps this up against FBS competition, a bowl game may still be realistic for Arizona. That’s a somewhat tall task, but they’ve clearly got the talent to make it happen.
Down: Pass defense
For as great as the offense looked, especially on the ground, the defense looked questionable as ever, especially through the air. It makes sense that NAU’s running game was average at best and pretty atrocious at worst through the night, but the Lumberjacks carved themselves out a lot of points by beating UA’s secondary.
Going into the season, the defensive line was seen as one of the team’s weaknesses that absolutely had to be fixed. It’s still a weakness, but against FCS players, U of A had the edge and won the battle of the trenches often. The result was an NAU offense that focused on the air, and surprisingly gutted a pass defense seen as an asset for the ‘Cats. NAU quarterback Case Cookus went 28 for 48, throwing for 373 yards and two touchdowns.
Admittedly, he also threw two interceptions, and his completion rate wasn’t great. But with a solid run defense for once, seeing the secondary fail to shut down NAU was disconcerting. Arizona is allowing 43 points/game as of now, with both games being against less talented opponents. Against a team at least as good and probably better than UA in TTU, the secondary will need to step up in a big way.
Up: Grant Gunnell’s first game
For as exciting as Khalil Tate has been in his Arizona career, a lot of excitement has surrounded true freshman Grant Gunnell as the future of Arizona football. He and Tate shared minutes on Saturday, and both looked phenomenal.
Gunnell went 9-for-11 for 151 yards and three touchdowns and no picks against the Lumberjacks. That statline is almost perfect for a true freshman’s first game action. Tate himself had a great game, finishing 14-for-17 for 138 yards and two scores, but Gunnell doing just as well as a freshman is so encouraging.
If Arizona can survive this season and bring in another recruiting class of players built more towards Sumlin’s system, with Gunnell behind center, there is a real chance Arizona can get back to winning. That could go wrong in a lot of ways, and is still a long way off, but Gunnell proved it’s not a pipe dream against NAU.
Arizona didn’t make too many mistakes in terms of moving the football down the field or stopping NAU from doing the same, but they did commit a frustrating number of penalties, a lot of which were unnecessary.
The team finished with 11 penalties for 127 yards, pushing the team backwards when there was no reason for such mistakes. A good portion of the penalties came on personal fouls, which Sumlin characterized as “selfish penalties.” It’s hard to argue against that, and this team has to improve their discipline as they move towards the difficult part of their schedule.
Overall, none of Arizona’s errors or weaknesses were critical against NAU, but they could be against the vast majority of the rest of UA’s schedule. If improvement occurs, there’s still some hope for the ‘Cats. If it doesn’t, then it might be a long season.