Arizona’s special teams were not a liability in last week’s loss to USC.
That doesn’t sound like much of an accomplishment, but if you’ve been following Wildcats football in recent years, you know it’s meaningful.
Senior kicker Lucas Havrisik had a good day. He made three field goals, setting a career high, in four attempts. He kicked off seven times, and all seven went for touchbacks.
Freshman Tyler Loop surprisingly handled the punting duties, and he performed well. (We say surprisingly because the official UA depth chart listed sophomore Kyle Ostendorp as the first-string punter.) Loop averaged 45.3 yards per punt, with a net of 39.7. The latter was 5.2 yards higher than Arizona’s league-worst 34.5 average last season.
The Trojans’ Amon-Ra St. Brown returned two of Loop’s punts, for a total of 17 yards. No major damage there. The Wildcats’ Tayvian Cunningham averaged 22.0 yards on two kickoff returns. Solid.
So how in the world did Arizona end up with a minus-14 differential in average starting field position?
Multiple factors contributed to that deficit, and we’re going to explore them in this week’s Cats Stats.
First, some things you should know:
Average starting field position is one of the most reliable factors that dictates the outcome of a football game. Simply put, the better your field position, the better chance you have to score
- Arizona was remarkably bad in this area last year. The Wildcats had a positive differential in only one game (UCLA). The deficit hit double figures five times, including against this week’s opponent, Washington (minus-13).
- In four of those five games, Arizona had multiple turnovers.
Arizona had only one giveaway against USC. Let’s start there.
The turnover happened on the first series of the game. Talanoa Hufanga intercepted Grant Gunnell at the UA 44-yard line. Hufanga returned the ball to the 17. The Trojans scored a touchdown six plays later.
Arizona didn’t have any takeaways — technically. But the Wildcats stopped the Trojans twice inside the red zone. That has the same effect — except, without the benefit of a return, it actually hurts average starting field position.
In the third quarter, USC drove to the UA 1-yard line. Consecutive penalties pushed the Trojans back to the 11. Parker Lewis then missed a field goal. By rule, the Wildcats began their next drive at the 20.
On their next possession, the Trojans advanced to the Wildcats’ 4. On fourth-and-1, Rourke Freeburg stuffed Markese Stepp for a 2-yard loss. That was the good news. The bad: Arizona got the ball back at its 6.
We asked Gunnell after the USC game why the offense struggled in the third quarter. He cited penalties.
“That’s just something we can’t have,” Gunnell said. “That’s the No. 1 drive killer.”
Penalties hurt the Wildcats during that period, and they contributed to a field-position differential of minus-20 in the third quarter.
Arizona forced USC to punt on the opening drive of the second half. The kick landed in the end zone. But the Wildcats inexplicably committed a holding foul on that play. As a result, they began their next drive at the 10.
On the first play after Lewis’ missed field goal, receiver Boobie Curry was flagged for a facemask violation. Again, Arizona was pushed back to its 10.
In addition to the holding penalty on the punt, the Wildcats made another mistake on special teams that cost them field position.
In the second quarter, Jamarye Joiner retreated to the UA 5 to field a punt. He was fortunate to gain a yard. It was a split-second decision by an exuberant player trying to make something happen. Had he let the ball bounce, there’s no guarantee it would have bounded into the end zone. But that was the prudent course of action, and it gave Arizona a long field. The Wildcats advanced 88 yards – their longest drive of the day – but only came away with a field goal.
Negative field position influences play-calling. Arizona started drives inside its 20 three times. Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone called a run play to start each one. Gary Brightwell’s 34-yard rush kick-started the 88-yard field-goal drive and gave Mazzone the freedom to explore his play sheet. On the drive after the fourth-down stop, the Wildcats never got that far. After Brightwell’s 4-yard run moved the ball the 10, a false-start penalty knocked them back to the 5.
After two more Brightwell rushes, Arizona punted. Loop boomed the ball 53 yards. St. Brown returned the punt 6 yards, to the USC 40. But a targeting foul on John Burton set up USC at the UA 45.
As Arizona coach Kevin Sumlin said regarding a different yet somewhat related subject – Washington’s retro style of play – “it all works together.”
The Huskies had a plus-10 advantage in average field position against Oregon State last week despite starting consecutive drives in the second half at their 5.
The conditions in Seattle will present a different challenge to the UA specialists. Typically, kicks don’t travel as far in the cool, damp Pacific Northwest as they do the hot, dry desert. For instance, kickers had a 48.7% touchback rate at Husky Stadium last year. They had a 76% rate at Arizona Stadium.
(Elevation also influences distance. Seattle is 175 feet above sea level; Tucson is 2,389.)
The latest forecast doesn’t call for rain, but that’s always a possibility this time of year.
“I really haven’t had too much experience with wet weather,” Havrisik said. “I think it just comes down to a mindset.”
Havrisik is keenly aware that every yard and point matter, especially when you’re the underdog, as Arizona again is this week. He lamented his missed field goal against USC, noting that if he had made it, the Wildcats only would have needed a field goal at the end.
Joiner wisely fair-caught the kickoff preceding that drive, preserving precious time. But with yet another start inside their 30 — their 11th in 12 possessions — and only 25 second left, the Wildcats faced insurmountable odds.