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What to watch for when Arizona hosts Colorado on Saturday

arizona-wildcats-colorado-buffaloes-preview-turnovers-defense-quarterback-gunnell-2020-pac12 Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats have brought a program-record 10-game losing streak back home for the final two scheduled games of the 2020 season. The first one on tap is against the Colorado Buffaloes, arguably the UA’s easiest foe in recent memory.

The Wildcats (0-3) have won three straight and seven of eight against the Buffaloes, but this herd is different. Colorado is off to a 3-0 start under Karl Dorrell, its third coach in as many seasons.

Here’s what to watch for when Arizona and Colorado battle at Arizona Stadium at 5 p.m. MST on Saturday.

Who plays QB (who who protects him)?

Grant Gunnell was knocked out of last week’s 27-10 loss at UCLA on the first play, taken to the ground hard on his right shoulder. Coach Kevin Sumlin was unwilling to provide any further context to the injury during the week other than to say that if the sophomore was healthy enough to play this week he would.

True freshman Will Plummer performed about as best as possible considering he was thrown into action with no warning and almost as few first-team reps. That won’t be the case this time, and he is most likely to make his first career start against Colorado.

How the offensive line performs in front of the QB is far more important, however. Arizona’s line, perceived as a major strength in the preseason, has allowed 11 sacks and looked completely disjointed so far this season. Sumlin hinted at the possibility of some personnel changes, so don’t be surprised if junior Donovan Laie is back at left tackle—where he anchored the line for his first two seasons—after being moved to left guard this fall.

Defending the edge

Colorado leads the Pac-12 in time of possession, holding the ball for an average of more than 35 minutes per game. The Buffaloes have done this by running the ball more than 52 times per game, converting 46.2 percent of their third downs while holding opponents to 35.6 percent efficiency on third down.

Arizona, on the other hand, is second-to-last in TOP (27:05), converts on third down only 31.9 percent of the time (last in the Pac-12) and yields a first down on 42.9 percent of opposing third down plays.

The UA has been fairly effective at stopping the run on the inside, a byproduct of grad transfers Aaron Blackwell and Roy Lopez. It’s when teams eventually realize the outside is the way to go that things get bad, as it exposes Arizona’s lack of speed on the edge.

To wit: Arizona’s leading tackler is safety Rhedi Short, and three of its top four tacklers are defensive backs. The front seven guy with the most tackles is linebacker Anthony Pandy, but only seven are solo.

The elusive takeaway

Colorado has been very careful with the ball so far, throwing two interceptions but losing zero fumbles. If it coughs up the ball against Arizona it will mark the Wildcats’ first takeaway of the season, and first since recording an interception against Utah last November.

Arizona is the only team in FBS without a takeaway, and since the beginning of the 2019 season it has recovered a mere four fumbles, which is also fewest in the country.

For all we know, Arizona has come up with some sort of trophy for players that record a takeaway, a la Oregon State’s “turnover chainsaw” or the massive gold chain Miami players get to don after getting a pick or recovering a fumble..

We’ve got a recommendation, by the way:

Red zone results

The overall raw numbers still look bad, but Arizona’s defense has played fairly well considering its lack of depth and the amount of time it’s been on the field. This has been particularly true in the red zone, where opponents have only managed touchdowns on 10 of 17 trips inside the UA’s 20-yard line.

The Wildcats have forced five short field goals and allowed zero points on two other occasions.

Enter Colorado, which is one of eight teams to score on every red zone possession, with 11 of those 13 trips finding the end zone.

Arizona, on the other hand, has just four red zone TDs in eight trips, settling for field goals three other times (with the empty possession coming at UCLA when holder Jacob Meeker-Hackett muffed the hold on what would have been a chip shot field goal).

Brothers unite

The Harris family of Gilbert, Ariz. have had this game circled on the calendar for months. Same with the original two iterations of Colorado’s visit to Arizona Stadium that were on the schedules released last winter and over the summer.

That’s because this game will pit brothers Jalen (Arizona) and Jason (Colorado) against each other for the first time. Jason Harris, a true freshman linebacker, has yet to play this season for the Buffaloes, but odds are he’ll be on the travel squad.

Unfortunately, parents Cha-Ron and Sean—the latter was a member of Arizona’s Desert Swarm defenses in the early 1990s—won’t be able to attend the game. The UA announced recently it would no longer have friends and family at games due to Pima County’s rising COVID-19 case counts.

Arizona had allowed a limited number of attendees for its first home game on Nov. 14 vs. USC, while the games at Washington and UCLA were played without anyone in the stands.

“That’s a tough deal,” Sumlin said of the change. “Is everybody disappointed? Yeah. But, our guys understand that, to play football right now, I think our parents do as well, at this point, that’s a no go with what’s going on, not just here in Pima County, but around the country. We’ve been to two empty stadiums at this point, without parents anywhere, and we were really fortunate three weeks ago to have the parents here for for both teams. They get that, they’ve sacrificed. Players have over Thanksgiving, parents have over Thanksgiving. Is it disappointing? Yeah, but to play this game, they understand that.”

Opt ins?

A rough estimate of scholarship athletes Arizona will have available for Saturday’s game is about 65, a number that factors in players who are out for the season due to injury, are suspended, have left the program or have opted out at some point.

The latter category is apparently a gray area, at least according to Sumlin. When asked Monday after a spate of defensive backs opting out, including sophomore cornerback Bobby Wolfe, Sumlin noted that there have been instances of players taking to social media to say they were opting out only to be in uniform the following game.

“There’s been a lot of reactionary stuff. It’s 2020, right?,” Sumlin said. “There’s been a lot of reactionary things from the beginning, even from this summer, where guys have been on social media and said they’ve opted out and then you’ve seen them play. You deal with emotions all the time in this business, with young guys. It remains to be seen, I’ll just put it that way.”

For what it’s worth, Wolfe is listed as the No. 2 cornerback behind redshirt senior Lorenzo Burns on the latest depth chart, which was updated for the first time since the season began.