Every Monday throughout the season, we’ll take a look back at the Arizona Wildcats’ previous game after re-watching the TV broadcast and present five key takeaways. Here are the five from the UA’s 19-16 loss to Houston on Saturday night:
1. QB questions
So many issues here, it’s hard to figure out where to begin. Let’s start with this: You could make a case that the quarterback situation hasn’t improved over the past year in any area besides depth. The Houston game was similar to last year’s opener vs. BYU in many ways, none more so than poor QB play being the biggest difference between a win and a loss. Brandon Dawkins has worked on shoring up his deficiencies, but they’re still showing up in games. Yes, he took a hard hit to the rib area just before he overthrew an open Tony Ellison in the end zone in the third quarter. But Dawkins also missed some other basic plays he should have made earlier in the game. Is it his footwork? His throwing mechanics? His head? Meanwhile, Khalil Tate clearly wasn’t 100 percent Saturday – and clearly has some learning to do. Regardless of whether he made the right read on his fourth-quarter interception, he didn't make the right decision. Arizona had first down and was 5 yards away from field-goal range. There was no need to force that pass. Hopefully Tate will grow from that experience. But can Rich Rodriguez afford to endure Tate’s growing pains if he goes in that direction?
2. It wasn’t all on them
The coach and the quarterback are the easiest people to blame for fans and media alike. Heck, I just wrote 200-plus words on the QB problems (and could write hundreds more). But there’s more to it than that. The quarterbacks need help from their friends, and they didn’t always get it vs. Houston. Shun Brown uncharacteristically dropped two passes. How unusual was that? Brown had only one drop all of last year, according to Pro Football Focus. I know the one on the last possession was behind him, but it’s absolutely a ball Brown should have caught. (I guarantee you he’d say so himself.) Fellow receiver Shawn Poindexter had two opportunities to come down with passes in the end zone and failed to secure either one. The first ended up being pass interference, but Arizona ended up settling for a field goal. On the second, replay might have overturned the initial incomplete ruling – if Poindexter had completed the catch. Poindexter, a former volleyball player, has come a long way as a football player. But despite his senior status, he’s far from a finished product. One encouraging sign: He threw some excellent blocks on the perimeter.
3. Secondary = primary strength
Barring injuries, this new-look secondary is going to become a real team strength, if it isn’t one already. We know about Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles, who continues to look and play like a pro safety. The other four starters all impressed against the Cougars. Converted cornerback Dane Cruikshank looks as if he’s been playing safety all his life. He’s quick, aggressive and decisive. He might be Arizona’s best blitzer, and I wouldn’t mind seeing him used more in that capacity. His replacement at corner, Lorenzo Burns, might have turned a corner in the second half. Beaten early, Burns responded late with tighter coverage, surer tackling and a huge interception. Freshman free safety Scottie Young Jr. grew up in the second half as well. After being late to react on a bubble screen that resulted in Houston’s first touchdown, Young fought through blockers to help blow one up in the third quarter. Finally, junior cornerback Jace Whittaker might have had his best game since Utah last season. His effort and tackling vs. Houston’s quick-screen game were exemplary.
4. Taylor's touches
Tailback J.J. Taylor is a unique weapon, and if he doesn’t get at least 15 touches per game, something’s wrong. Taylor’s ability to come to a complete stop, change directions, elude tacklers and maintain his balance is extraordinary. That 27-yard cutback run in the second quarter was as good an individual effort as you’ll see (with help from Poindexter, who took out two Cougars on the back side). Taylor needs touches because he has that Barry Sanders all-or-nothing element to his game. Taylor might gain only a yard or two on a handful of runs, but he’s a constant threat to break one. Did he get enough touches in the second half vs. Houston? Probably not. Taylor had 10 carries in the first half, seven in the second. He and Zach Green combined for only eight second-half rushes. Meanwhile, Arizona had 23 pass attempts in the second half (vs. 14 in the first half) and 11 QB runs (vs. six). I know the Wildcats were trailing throughout after halftime, but it was never more than a two-score game.
5. This time it’s personnel
Every week I’ll provide some notes on individual players, so here goes … Taylor’s blocking remains inconsistent. His blitz reads were good vs. Houston, but his technique was lacking at times. Something to work on. … Receivers have to block in Arizona’s offense, and it’s a struggle at times for Tyrell Johnson because of his size; he simply gets overpowered sometimes. That’s why he needs to be used as a spot player on offense. … WR Cam Denson played a handful of snaps, so it doesn’t appear that he’ll redshirt at this point. … Houston DT Ed Oliver lived up to the hype and then some. He was everywhere – in the backfield, down the field, making things happen. The Wildcats won’t face a better defensive player this season. … Last week I said MLB Brandon Rutt needed to play better to keep his job, and he did. Rutt was much more aggressive and decisive in his run reads. … WLB Tony Fields II’s activity level jumps off the screen. Even when he takes himself out of a play, he hustles back into it. Great motor. … Freshman CB Tony Wallace made his Arizona debut on the kickoff-coverage team and unfortunately missed a tackle on John Leday’s 81-yard return (although several Wildcats appeared to be out of position). … After trying Donald Reiter and Rutt as the short snapper in place of the injured Nick Reinhardt, Arizona went with starting center Nathan Eldridge, who performed well but already has a lot on his plate.
REPORT CARD: Grading Arizona's performance vs. Houston