Every week throughout the season, we take a look back at the Arizona Wildcats’ previous game after re-watching it via the TV broadcast. Here are five key takeaways from the UA’s 65-41 victory over NAU on Saturday:
1. HALFWAY THERE
If you stayed up to watch the second half, you probably weren’t thrilled with much of what you saw. After a dominant, record-setting first half, Arizona got outscored and outgained after intermission. Kevin Sumlin wasn’t overly enthused about it either, criticizing his club for failing to finish. How much stock should we put into what transpired over the final 30 minutes? Some, but not a ton. With the game out of hand, Arizona used personnel it normally wouldn’t in a tight contest. Reserves played, and starters sat. For example, middle linebacker Colin Schooler didn’t play a single snap in the second half. Were some starters/regulars on the field? Yes. But it was never a full complement, the Wildcats used a lot of basic rushes and coverages on defense and the intensity level wasn’t the same as in the first half. If your argument is that Arizona’s backups should dominate NAU’s starters – and that Arizona’s backups, in general, need to improve – there’s definitely some merit to that. This game provided an opportunity for those players to gain invaluable experience. They should benefit from it in the long run.
2. INCONSISTENCY OF YOUTH
Except in rare cases, freshmen are going to make mistakes. Arizona used a boatload of them against NAU, many of whom hadn’t previously played a down of college football. Inconsistent play should be expected, and reviewing the game revealed multiple examples. Defensive end Kwabena Watson registered a pair of QB pressures. On the opening drive of the third quarter, he fought off a block to put himself in position to stuff a first-and-goal run. But Watson missed the tackle, leading to a 4-yard gain. Two plays later, the Lumberjacks scored. Cornerback Christian Roland-Wallace seemed to have no idea the ball was coming on a first-quarter TD. He later muffed a free kick. But then, in the third quarter, Roland-Wallace astutely came off his man to intercept a pass. Second-year players aren’t immune either. Sophomore corner McKenzie Barnes teamed with Tony Fields II to lay a hard hit on tailback George Romero in the fourth quarter, limiting him to 1 yard. On the next play, Barnes got beaten for a touchdown. The hope is that those young players learn from their mistakes and become more consistent sooner than later.
3. PENALTY PROBLEM
Kevin Sumlin has mixed feelings about tonight’s win vs. NAU. “There’s a lot of things I’m not very happy about.” pic.twitter.com/kr5r0BxYJg— Justin Spears (@JustinESports) September 8, 2019
Sumlin was irate during and after the game about the Wildcats’ plethora of penalties. The final tally: 11 for 127 yards. He vowed that the problem would be fixed. Unfortunately, it isn’t a new issue. Arizona has played 14 games under Sumlin. In six of them – nearly half – the Wildcats have been flagged at least 10 times. That total includes both games this season. What was somewhat new Saturday was the nature of the infractions. Five of the 11 were unsportsmanlike-conduct penalties or personal fouls. Sophomore safety Christian Young was guilty of both unsportsmanlike penalties for celebrating. Neither act was egregious. But the NCAA is extremely strict about celebrations, and the players ought to know that. After he was disqualified against NAU, it’s a pretty safe bet Young will exercise better judgment in the future. Freshman linebacker Derrion Clark was called for two personal fouls, including a targeting infraction that will keep him out of the first half of the upcoming Texas Tech game. Clark’s other penalty, remarkably, came on a touchback. Some teams can get away with being heavily penalized. Arizona, as current constituted, isn’t one of them.
4. THIS TIME IT’S PERSONNEL
Each week we provide some notes on individual players, so here goes … You couldn’t help but be impressed with freshman QB Grant Gunnell, who looked completely under control in his college debut. Gunnell made sound decisions and ran the offense like a veteran. One area he could stand to improve: Using his legs more to drive the ball to the sideline. … Senior QB Khalil Tate did a better job of getting rid of the ball outside the pocket after taking two unnecessary sacks by running out of bounds vs. Hawaii. … Redshirt freshman Zach Williams, playing in place of injured TE Bryce Wolma, did a superb job as a blocker. He showed up numerous times in the run game. And Williams has plenty of room to grow at 6-3, 216 pounds. … Arizona had its offensive linemen pulling much more than in the season opener, and it seemed to suit tackles Donovan Laie and Paiton Fears particularly well. … DE Jalen Harris’ lone sack came on the first series, but we had Harris with three QB pressures and two hits after that. He was active and aggressive. … Those same adjectives could be applied to LB Anthony Pandy and safety Tristan Cooper, especially against the run. … Safety Scottie Young Jr. played better than in the opener but had a bad missed tackle that led to a 39-yard gain in the third quarter. Arizona blitzed on the play; defensive backs need to wrap up if the rush doesn’t get home.
5. TECH TALK
Did the Wildcats do anything to convince you they can beat a quality opponent such as Texas Tech? Again, it depends on which version of the Cats you’re referring to. The team from the first half of the NAU game definitely can give the Red Raiders a game. The offense found better rhythm and balance and posted 49 of the team’s 51 points without Tate having to use his legs to make plays. The defense limited the Lumberjacks to 4.17 yards per play in the first half. Even if you exclude the 27-yard loss on the bad punt snap, that figure still comes in at under 5 yards (4.95). It’s hard to get an accurate gauge on the team’s progress against an FCS opponent, but at least Arizona seems to be trending in a positive direction in certain areas after the opening dud at Hawaii. The Wildcats will have to be more disciplined against the Red Raiders, who are 2-0 and opened as three-point favorites. Arizona’s pass defense must improve as well. The truth is, we don’t know how good this UA team is yet. And we won’t find out until Saturday night.