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 63-16 victory over on Friday night:
1. Different Dawkins?
ESPN’s Molly McGrath reported it during the broadcast. Rich Rodriguez hinted at it after the game. Players flat-out said it: Quarterback Brandon Dawkins brought a different demeanor to El Paso. With his job on the line, and a season possibly in the balance, Dawkins played with supreme focus and determination. From a technical/X’s-and-O’s standpoint, ESPN’s Dusty Dvoracek astutely pointed out the biggest differences in Dawkins’ game vs. UTEP: His footwork improved, and the coaching staff gave him timing-based throws early so he could get in a rhythm and build confidence. As a result, Dawkins threw the ball not only with accuracy but conviction. If there’s one quibble, I’d like to see him protect himself more when running. Dawkins took at least two unnecessary shots vs. the Miners (although his instincts and ball-handling on that reverse-field 3-yard TD run at the end of the first half were exquisite). Remember, Arizona was leading upcoming opponent Utah last year when Dawkins had to come out of the game. With backup Khalil Tate still banged up, the Wildcats need not only a determined Dawkins but a healthy Dawkins.
2. Better together
Rodriguez has deployed the look only a handful of times, but it needs to become a staple: J.J. Taylor and Nick Wilson together in the backfield. Arizona’s first touchdown serves as proof; it was about the easiest pitch and catch you’ll ever see. Taylor lined up to Dawkins’ left, Wilson to his right. Dawkins faked a handoff to Wilson, and nine Miners flowed in that direction. The only two who didn’t were covering the outside receivers. Taylor slipped out to the right, uncovered. Not that every play will work that well, but with those two in the game, the defense can’t commit to one or the other. Excluding Dawkins, they’re two of Arizona’s three best playmakers (Shun Brown being the other). It makes sense to use them at the same time. Of course, Wilson’s health is the key component in this equation. The oft-injured senior, coming off a sprained ankle, looked a little sluggish early before finding his footing late.
3. Schooler’s in session
Rodriguez has compared the current freshman linebackers to the class of 2013, which featured Scooby Wright, DeAndre’ Miller and Derrick Turituri. It’s unfair and premature to make this comparison, but Colin Schooler looked Scooby-esque at times during the UTEP game. Specifically, Schooler showed the instincts, awareness and aggression that made Wright an All-American on the game-altering forced fumble in the second quarter. As Kavika Johnson ran up the middle, Schooler fought off a block to get in on that tackle. Recognizing that several Wildcats were also on the scene, Schooler realized he could go for the strip. Even on his gimme interception later in the quarter, Schooler stayed home and ended up in the right place at the right time. He might have Wally Pipp-ed Brandon Rutt, who underwent the concussion protocol during the game, according to McGrath. Whether it happens this year or next, Schooler will take over as Arizona’s “Mike” linebacker. The Scooby comps are inevitable. It’s an undue burden to place on a kid, but who wouldn’t want to be the best?
4. This time it’s personnel
Every week I’ll provide some notes on individual players, so here goes … Taylor and Wilson each had thunderous blitz pickups, all the more reason to use them in concert. On Dawkins’ 35-yard run in the first quarter, Taylor not only blocked a blitzing corner but raced downfield to help Dawkins gain a few extra yards. … Freshman tight end Bryce Wolma continues to impress. His 1-yard touchdown was all effort; the Miners had the play covered perfectly. … I don’t know if the move of Jack Banda to tight end is permanent, but I do know he can lay a block. … The offensive line was inconsistent, especially in the first half, before eventually imposing its will on the outclassed UTEP front. Senor right guard Jacob Alsadek was the best of the bunch. … Left guard Christian Boettcher is a great story and a great kid, a self-made player who will do something much more important than football someday. But his physical limitations show up at times, especially when pulling. I’d like to see Michael Eletise rotate in to add some oomph to the run game. … DT Finton Connolly had a sneaky-good game, regularly penetrating the backfield (1.5 TFLs). … Freshman LB Tony Fields II is very good in space but struggles at times at the point of attack. He’ll get better in time at taking on blocks. … The redshirt came off LB Anthony Pandy, who immediately showed a knack for getting into the backfield. … Pandy and fellow freshman Nathan Tilford (two tackles) gave excellent effort on kick coverage.
5. Proper perspective
So, does any of this mean Arizona is ready to beat Utah and contend for a bowl berth? Would it be fair to say we still don’t know? Let’s face it: UTEP is terrible. The Miners might be the worst team in FBS. I’m fairly certain NAU, Arizona’s Week 1 foe, would beat UTEP on a neutral field. The Wildcats have beaten up on a pair of clearly inferior foes and went toe to toe with a comparable opponent in Houston. Utah will represent a step up, at least in the sense that the Utes’ new quarterback, Tyler Huntley, is a Dawkins-esque dual threat. Arizona hasn’t faced anyone like that yet. The UA also hasn’t faced a defensive front like Utah’s, which has allowed just 49.3 rushing yards per game and 1.7 yards per carry. You’d like to think Dawkins turned a corner Friday night, but he still has to prove he can play at that level against a Pac-12 opponent. So do all the Wildcats, frankly.