Every Monday throughout the season, we’ll take a look back at the Arizona Wildcats’ previous game after re-watching it via the TV broadcast and present five key takeaways. Here are the five from the UA’s 48-28 loss at Oregon on Saturday night:
1. Putting the kibosh on Khalil
The Ducks achieved what no one else could: They prevented Khalil Tate from making any explosive plays. How did that happen? First, credit to Jim Leavitt and his charges. They didn’t do anything exotic beyond well-timed blitzes off the slot but played sound, disciplined defense against the zone read. Mostly – and I’m sure Tate and Rich Rodriguez would tell you the same thing – the Wildcats didn’t execute in a variety of ways. Tate himself had some misreads. The blocking wasn’t as pinpoint as it had been. And I counted five dropped passes by five receivers, plus a handful of 50/50 balls that Oregon ended up winning. If those five drops turn into catches, Tate’s 18-35-159 passing line looks a lot different. It was a little odd that RichRod didn’t dial up more Tate runs in the second half; he had only four rushing attempts after halftime. Tate appeared to hurt his left knee slightly early in the second half. But he never came out of the game, seemed to be moving around fine later and showed no signs of discomfort while walking from the locker room to the interview area.
2. Front and center
This is probably my fault. I wrote about how relatively healthy the Wildcats were heading into the weekend, and then they lost all three of their starting defensive linemen. Crazily, it was Royce Freeman, Oregon’s bowling ball of a running back, who took out all three. In the first quarter, Freeman landed on Justin Belknap’s left leg, injuring his knee. In the fourth, Freeman banged into Luca Bruno’s head, concussing him. And, on that same play, Freeman landed on Dereck Boles’ ankle, spraining it (at the very least). It’s speculation at this point, but my gut is that none will be available this week for the Territorial Cup. Belknap had a huge brace on his leg. Bruno has had previous concussion issues. And Boles had a boot on his foot. With Kurtis Brown (concussion/illness) and Parker Zellers (violation of team rules) not making the trip, and Larry Tharpe Jr. gassed, Arizona ended the game with Marcus Griffin, Finton Connolly and Jack Banda – who’s been practicing at tight end – on the D-line. If Brown and Zellers are back this week, the Wildcats might be OK. But Bruno and Boles are their sturdiest defensive tackles. The timing couldn’t be much worse.
3. The punting problem
RichRod couldn’t even yell at them. What could he say? Punt better? I watched Josh Pollack warm up. He was hitting the ball beautifully, with excellent hang time. His in-game struggles are clearly a mental thing, and they might have started with that blocked punt against USC. Jake Glatting got a crack in the fourth quarter, and he shanked his lone attempt for 19 yards. Here’s why this matters: When you’re on the road, trailing for most of the game and struggling on defense, you need to flip the field. Pollack’s 23-yard punt early in the fourth quarter set up Oregon at its 49-yard line. The Ducks ran the reverse flea-flicker for 50 yards on the next play; they don’t try that from their own 20 or 30. Glatting’s 19-yarder gave Oregon the ball at their 48. With the entire playbook at their disposal, they drove 45 yards in 11 plays, took 3:30 off the clock and tacked on a field goal. The little things matter when you’re a middle-class team like Arizona. RichRod and his staff have six days to solve their punting problem.
4. This time it’s personnel
Every week we provide some notes on individual players, so here goes … RB J.J. Taylor’s jump cut on Tyree Robinson in the second quarter was ridiculous. Robinson ended up tumbling to the turf. … Much like the USC game, Arizona’s receivers struggled to get separation against Oregon’s athletic cornerbacks. The group as a whole needs to give Tate more help. … Despite minimal (if any) practice reps at defensive end, Banda got pressure on Justin Herbert a couple of times. … LB Colin Schooler was by far Arizona’s most effective defender. Sometimes he was too aggressive, but the way he attacked the backfield was impressive. … Fellow LB Tony Fields II struggled to get off blocks. He had been playing more physically against the run, but that was not evident vs. the Ducks. … Freshman free safety Scottie Young Jr. is a difference maker. He’s the surest tackler among the safeties and did a nice job defending a fourth-quarter fade route. … Although he got beaten on the trick play and run over by Freeman a couple of times, I thought CB Lorenzo Burns played well, especially against Oregon’s bubble screens.
5. Final four
I said it as soon as Arizona got to 6-2: It was never about any individual outcome the rest of the way but the Wildcats’ overall record in their final four games. Could they at least get a split, which would mean winning one of three road games against USC, Oregon and Arizona State? In order to do it, the Cats will have to beat the Sun Devils. It’s the difference between a 7-5 season and 8-4. It’s just one game, but it feels like more. A lot more. When Arizona won its fourth in a row to reach the 6-2 mark, it raised the expectation level. Anyone would have taken 7-5 coming off a 3-9 season. But it would feel like a small step back at this point. So what do the Wildcats have to do to finish this thing properly? I go back to last year’s game. They outworked the Sun Devils. They wanted it more. With a banged-up defensive line and a motivated opponent, that will have to be the mindset again Saturday in Tempe. As is the case with most rivalry games, this one’s more about will than skill.