The Arizona Wildcats finished 1 yard short in Saturday’s “Week Zero” game against Hawaii, a game played under the college football microscope considering the day’s only other FBS game had finished. And for the second time in as many games, the Wildcats were left to wonder what happened.
Quarterback Khalil Tate completed 22 of 39 passes for a career-high 361 yards and three touchdowns, but was tackled at the 1-yard line on what could have been (after a PAT) a game-tying play, and the Wildcats fell 45-38 in Honolulu.
Arizona amassed 539 yards of total offense, but its defense allowed over 500 yards for the 12th time since defensive coordinator Marcel Yates took over in 2016. The Wildcats are 3-9 in those contests, which do not include last year’s rivalry loss to Arizona State. In that game, the Wildcats’ 2018 finale, the UA blew a 19-point lead and gave up 401 yards.
Arizona was plus-four in turnovers on Saturday and recorded six takeaways but was unable to beat its Mountain West Conference opponent. Wide receiver Cedric Byrd II erupted for 224 yards and four touchdowns for Hawaii, which converted on two of three fourth-down conversions. The Rainbow Warriors punted once the entire game.
Not the ideal start for the second season of the Kevin Sumlin era.
“As a team and as coaches, we’ve got to fix some things,” Sumlin said during his radio show Monday night on 1290-AM.
Sumlin said there were “too many critical errors in that game for us to be successful.”
“The performance overall was unacceptable,” he said on the radio show. “… Across the board, we were not good enough, didn’t play good enough and it’s just not acceptable for the results we had Saturday night.”
The Wildcats are off this week, then open their home schedule with a game against Northern Arizona.
It wasn’t all bad in the opener.
Senior cornerback Jace Whittaker made a triumphant return to the field, at least from an individual standpoint.
Whittaker, who missed all but one series in 2018 because of injuries, intercepted two passes against the Rainbow Warriors. He also earned the highest grade of any Wildcat on either side of the ball from Pro Football Focus.
“He makes a difference for us,” Sumlin said after the game. “He’s a coach on the field. He’s a leader.
“He’s a guy that we’re going to lean on heavily. You see his experience, particularly with some of those younger guys out there. He’s going to have to continue to be a leader for us as we go forward.”
Whittaker decided to return to Arizona for a fifth season in lieu of declaring for the draft or playing elsewhere as a graduate transfer. The loss superseded any positive feelings Whittaker might have had about his personal performance.
“You put the team first,” he said. “We came out here to win. That’s what we put all the work in to do is win. So it’s on to the next one.”
Utilizing redshirt rule for true freshmen
Arizona’s coaching staff plugged in several new faces in Saturday’s opener, including four true freshmen: running back Michael Wiley, offensive tackle Jordan Morgan and cornerbacks Bobby Wolfe and Christian Roland-Wallace.
Wolfe and Roland-Wallace earned more snaps once starter Lorenzo Burns exited the game with a concussion.
Wiley made an impact as a receiver, finishing with three catches for 50 yards. Wolfe and Roland-Wallace each recorded a tackle while Morgan was a part of the UA’s field goal unit.
True freshmen can play in as many as four games without losing a year of eligibility, according to NCAA rules enacted last year. Sumlin and the Wildcats took advantage of it in 2018, playing a handful of players who are now a part of the Wildcats’ plans.
Sumlin said wide receiver Tre Adams is a classic example of a player capitalizing on the redshirt rule to save a year. The 6-foot-4-inch, 195-pound receiver from Frisco, Texas, played against Houston, Southern Utah, Oregon State and UCLA last year.
“He’s really a beneficiary of this rule because he played in four games last year, but was able to retain his redshirt year. In those four games, he played 60 snaps. To put that in perspective, there were 71 plays last Saturday night.”
Sumlin said he anticipates using more freshmen in the following weeks.
New receivers showing bright future
One of the biggest questions heading into the season opener was this: Who will emerge as Arizona’s top pass catchers?
Tight end Bryce Wolma hauled in his first touchdown catch in nearly two years. Stanley Berryhill led the team in receiving with three catches for 92 yards and a touchdown in the fourth quarter, which tied the game at 35. Drew Dixon started his first game as a Wildcat and caught two passes for 13 yards.
Former quarterback Jamarye Joiner, who was praised by his coaches and teammates during preseason training camp, made a positive first impression as a wide receiver.
He caught four passes for 72 yards and a touchdown. Sumlin said he’s been pleased with Joiner’s progress in converting from a quarterback to a wide receiver and the first game was reassurance that Joiner made the correct decision.
“He is such a good athlete. I told him, ‘For you to stand by me for the game and we have guys out there who aren’t as athletic as you are, it’s a shame,’” Sumlin said on his radio show.
Joiner split time with Brian Casteel and junior college transfer Tayvian Cunningham at slot receiver.
“He made some big catches for us in third-down situations and moved the sticks. He really just started in the summer. After spring ball, he knew where he was on the depth chart and wanted to play. He’s only going to get better,” Sumlin said on his radio show.
Cunningham is a 5-7 speedster who transferred from Sacramento City College in May after former wide receiver Devaughn Cooper was dismissed from the team. Sumlin said Cunningham was the last addition to the team and his decision was to either play football at the UA or run track at other Pac-12 schools. Cunningham had four catches for 65 yards, which included a 26-yard gain.
“He’s got a little burst and he’s got a bright future ahead of him,” Sumlin said.
Unusual field goal
Morgan, an offensive tackle from Marana High School who was in Arizona’s 2019 recruiting class, made his college debut as a blocker on the field goal unit. In the fourth quarter, Morgan was part of one of the wildest stretches in recent memory.
Arizona trailed by 10 points with less than four minutes remaining when Lucas Havrisik trotted onto the field to attempt a 38-yard field goal. Arizona was flagged for delay of game, moving the attempt back 5 yards. On the ensuing attempt, Morgan was flagged for false start — another 5 yards. Morgan did it again on the next snap.
Sumlin says Hawaii’s field goal block group simulated Arizona’s snap count, which is a penalty if done intentionally.
“Guys were getting upset on the line of scrimmage because they knew what was going on and it wasn’t getting called,” Sumlin said on his radio show.
Havrisik still managed to make a 53-yard attempt.
“We knew from 56 and 57, he’d be fine,” Sumlin said.
- Redshirt sophomore Edgar Burrola and junior college transfer Paiton Fears were listed as co-starters for Saturday’s game. Burrola started the game, but Fears rotated in. Sumlin said both played 37 snaps each, but there were only 71 offensive plays the entire night. Regardless, the right tackle battle is expected to continue into the bye week before the Wildcats face NAU.
- Whittaker’s interceptions were his first since 2017. Burns also notched his first pick since ’17. Wolma and tailback Nathan Tilford scored their first touchdowns since that season.
- Tate’s 361 passing yards against Hawaii were a career high. It was his fifth career 300-yard game — all coming in his past 13 starts.
- Arizona’s next opponent, NAU, opens its season Thursday against Missouri State. The UA’s final nonconference foe, Texas Tech, opens with a pair of home games against Montana State and UTEP.