Every week throughout the season, we take an-depth look back at the Arizona Wildcats’ previous game. Below are five key takeaways from the UA’s 45-38 season-opening loss at Hawaii on Saturday. (Editor’s note: Because of Michael Lev’s travel schedule, he could not re-watch the game before writing this piece.)
1. GAME PLAN, PART 1
Arizona led the Pac-12 in rushing from 2016-18. Hawaii allowed more than 200 rushing yards per game last season. Yet the Wildcats came out … throwing? Astoundingly, yes. The first four play calls were passes. Three fell incomplete; one was intercepted, off a Khalil Tate fastball that Drew Dixon couldn’t handle. Despite an interception by Jace Whittaker on the opening series, Arizona trailed 14-0 entering the second quarter. The Wildcats’ first two drives netted 3 yards. The official stat sheet shows 32 rushing plays and 39 pass attempts. When you shift sacks to the latter column, it’s 30 and 41. When you consider that several of those runs were scrambles by Tate, the imbalance is even more pronounced. Maybe it’s too simple to say that the Wildcats should have tried to establish the run. Noel Mazzone has been doing this a long time, but the feeling here is that he overthought this. When you have J.J. Taylor on your team – and running back is your deepest position – it makes little sense to hand the ball off only 18 times. Was Arizona playing from behind? Yes. But never by more than 14 points. It was a one-score game for much of the second half. One final thought on this: Running more could have helped the UA defense by keeping it off the field. Hawaii possessed the ball for almost 38 minutes.
2. GAME PLAN, PART 2
Speaking of the defense, Marcel Yates’ unit again struggled against a pass-heavy team. The run-and-shoot isn’t the same as the Air Raid, but this looked an awful lot like recent matchups against Washington State. Using mostly three- and four-man rushes, the Wildcats couldn’t generate pressure against WSU’s quarterbacks, who sliced them apart. The same story played out at Aloha Stadium. Cole McDonald and Chevan Cordeiro had time to step up in the pocket and find open receivers. Despite talk during the preseason about shifting to a four-man line, Arizona opened with a three-man front. Despite talk about using JB Brown as inside pass rusher, Justin Belknap started in that role. According to Pro Football Focus, the Wildcats sent three rushers 14 times out of 54 pass-rush plays. They sent four rushers 26 times. They “blitzed” (five or more rushers) the other 14 times. If you operate under the premise that these offenses are going to attempt – and complete – a high volume of passes no matter what, it’s imperative to hit the quarterback. The Wildcats should have come at McDonald and Cordeiro from all angles to at least let them know they were there. Dropping seven and eight defenders into coverage did not work against WSU. It didn’t work against Hawaii either.
3. TATE’S MAD DASH
Khalil Tate comes up less than a yard short of a game-tying TD as time expires. @HawaiiFootball squeezes out the 45-38 victory. 👀WHAT A GAME! WHAT A START TO THE CFB SEASON!#CFBonCBS pic.twitter.com/yhXPySr4I4— CBS Sports Network (@CBSSportsNet) August 25, 2019
The defense at least took the ball away. That, combined with Tate’s playmaking ability, gave Arizona a chance at the end. It came down to one final play, with an extremely high degree of difficulty. This one we did get to re-watch, multiple times. Here’s the breakdown: The Wildcats had the ball at the Rainbow Warriors’ 31 with 10 seconds left and no timeouts. The play was “four verticals.” Tate dropped to pass. He felt pressure from the outside, stepped up and rolled to his right. He kept his eyes downfield as he neared the line of scrimmage. Not finding anyone open – but seeing a large swatch of open turf – Tate then tried to run for it. After breaking a tackle outside the 20 and eluding a diving defender inside the 10, Tate cut to the inside. It looked like he had only one Rainbow Warrior to beat – defensive back Kalen Hicks. But aptly named, 245-pound defensive lineman Manly Williams hustled all the way down the field and blindsided Tate from his left, knocking him to the ground. Tate landed 1 yard short of the end zone. “I felt like it was the right decision to take off and run,” he said. “I just came up a little short. I thought I was going to score, as a lot of people probably did.”
4. THIS TIME IT’S PERSONNEL
Here are the highest-graded players on the offensive side from last night's shootout between Arizona and Hawaii! pic.twitter.com/JxMIcy1mp5— PFF College (@PFF_College) August 25, 2019
Each week we provide some notes on individual players, so here goes … If there’s anything UA fans should feel encouraged about, it’s Tate’s rushing line: 13 for 108. His season high last year: 46 yards. … Taylor ran hard and well, seldom going down on first contact. He just didn’t run enough. … Freshman RB Michael Wiley lived up to the preseason hype. It appears Arizona will use him in a variety of ways. He was especially effective as a receiver. … While young/new wideouts Jamarye Joiner, Tayvian Cunningham and Brian Casteel impressed – they combined for 11 catches, 168 yards and a touchdown – senior Cedric Peterson was shut out. His only notable moment came on a deep ball where he drew a pass-interference penalty. … Senior guard Cody Creason was PFF’s highest-graded lineman on either side. … Third-year pass rushers Jalen Harris and JB Brown did not make enough of an impact after showing great promise during the offseason. … A tale of two freshman corners: Christian Roland-Wallace got beaten for a touchdown, while Bobby Wolfe looked feisty and competitive coming off the bench for the injured Lorenzo Burns. They’ll have their ups and downs, but both appear to have legit potential. … Kudos to kicker Lucas Havrisik, who was unfazed by a string of penalties that pushed his fourth-quarter field-goal attempt 15 yards back. That’s a good sign for his development.
5. DIGGING OUT FROM UNDER
Yikes. This was not the start Kevin Sumlin was seeking in the first game of his second season. The most disturbing part might have been the start: For the fourth time in six road games under Sumlin, the Wildcats entered the second quarter with a double-figure deficit. How does that keep happening? Why isn’t Arizona ready to fight from the opening whistle? Sumlin again harped on the theme of consistency after the game, saying: “In all three phases, we did some really, really good things at times … and we did some awful things.” He also said: “I’ve gotta do a better job. It starts with me.” It always starts at the top in college football. The bottom line for Sumlin so far isn’t good: a 5-8 record and a three-game losing streak. Those three setbacks: an ugly blowout loss at WSU; a blown fourth-quarter lead against Arizona State; and a loss to a Group of Five school that was a double-digit underdog. Arizona undoubtedly will regroup against NAU after its bye, but that won’t win over the fan base. A victory over Texas Tech the following week might. But after what we saw Saturday, that feels like a long shot.