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 35-7 loss at No. 7 Utah on Saturday night:
1. ROTATION RUNS ITS COURSE
Arizona’s six-game losing streak has coincided with Kevin Sumlin’s decision to use two quarterbacks. It became a full-blown platoon three games into it, at Stanford. The rotation is not the cause of the Wildcats’ struggles; if anything, their struggles led to the rotation. Either way, we’ve seen it in action for four straight games, and the time has come to end the experiment. Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered the past two games with so many offensive linemen being injured. But it has become pretty clear that the offense isn’t functioning at full capacity with Grant Gunnell and Khalil Tate sharing the job. Yes, they have complementary skills. But it’s extremely difficult to get a feel for the game, establish a rhythm and develop timing with receivers when your playing time is intermittent – especially in a game like Saturday’s, in which Utah possessed the ball for almost 40 minutes. With one game left against rival Arizona State, the move that makes the most sense is to start Tate and let him do his thing. He’s 0-2 as a starter against the Sun Devils. It’s his final game as a Wildcat. As disappointing as the past two seasons have been, Tate can change the way UA fans perceive him just by winning that game. Gunnell will have plenty of opportunities to put his stamp on the rivalry in the future.
2. FINE LINE
You can look at the numbers – 196 total yards, 3.8 yards per play – and figure out that Arizona’s makeshift offensive line had a tough time with Utah’s menacing defensive front. But it’s hard to tell what really happened without re-watching each play and breaking them down. One play in particular illustrated the instability the Wildcats are experiencing up front. Arizona faced fourth-and-9 at the Utah 43-yard line early in the third quarter. The score was 21-0 at the time. The Utes brought a blitz against an empty-backfield set, sending two extra rushers. Safety Terrell Burgess blitzed from the offense’s left. Left tackle Donovan Laie fanned out to pick him up. Left guard Bryson Cain blocked down, giving Utah star defensive end Bradlee Anae a clear path into the backfield. With Anae almost immediately in his face, Tate tried to buy time by scrambling toward the right sideline. He ended up throwing the ball away. Laie and Cain are two of Arizona’s most experienced regulars. But just the week before, Laie was working at left guard so Jordan Morgan (since injured) could enter the lineup. Cain was out. Last season, Laie and Cain primarily worked on the right side. Meanwhile, Robert Congel was making his first career start at center. Maybe more than any other position, offensive line injuries can have harmful side effects.
3. FITS AND STARTS
Poor Jace Whittaker. Whoever prepared the scoreboard graphics misspelled the defensive back’s name during senior-night introductions. Jace Whittaker became “Jase Whitaker.” It was symbolic, in a way, because Whittaker has been playing out of position for much of the season. A cornerback his entire career, Whittaker shifted to safety this year in a desperate attempt by then-defensive coordinator Marcel Yates to get his five best defensive backs on the field. Yates had pulled off that trick before, moving Dane Cruikshank from corner to safety in 2017. But Cruikshank had a safety build; Whittaker (5-11, 185) does not. He gives great effort, but sometimes that’s just not enough. Example: On the first of many tackle-breaking runs by exceptional Utah tailback Zack Moss, Whittaker came up to stop him. Moss stiff-armed Whittaker into the turf, turning a 5-yard gain into a tone-setting 32-yarder. We’re not trying to pick on Whittaker here. The greater point is that the pieces never quite fit for Arizona on either side of the ball this season. Figuring out how they should fit is a major priority for the coaching staff in the offseason.
4. THIS TIME IT’S PERSONNEL
Each week we provide some notes on individual players, so here goes … This was the first game in which Gunnell looked sped up times. He allowed the pass rush to affect his footwork early in the game before settling down later. A good learning experience for the freshman. … It’s been a challenge for the running backs to get into a rhythm with so many vying for playing time, and Nathan Tilford appeared to suffer the consequences Saturday. He looked rusty and didn’t hit the hole hard other than a 5-yard run on fourth-and-2 late in the fourth quarter. … If you’re looking for bright spots on offense, look no further than young receivers Boobie Curry and Jamarye Joiner. Curry looked smooth making a back-shoulder catch from Gunnell, and Joiner showed toughness taking a big hit at the tail end of hookup with Tate. … In an effort to bulk up against the run, Arizona barely used defensive ends Jalen Harris, JB Brown and Kylan Wilborn. That had the unintended and detrimental effect of shrinking the Wildcats’ defensive line rotation. … Second-year LB Day Day Coleman flashed playmaking ability while getting a full series in the fourth quarter. … Freshman punter Kyle Ostendorp clearly has talent. He just needs some refinement to become more consistent.
5. ONE GOAL LEFT
It felt pretty bleak at the end of the game Saturday night – the Wildcats playing out the string in a blowout loss in a near-empty stadium. The outlook for the Territorial Cup isn’t promising either: The offensive line remains in flux, and ASU opened as a 12.5-point favorite. It’s gotten to the point where it’s fair to wonder whether Sumlin’s job could be on the line in Tempe. That might be premature, given that he’s just two years into a five-year contract that includes a hefty buyout. But to say the fan base is dissatisfied with what it has seen to date would be an understatement. There are reasons to feel hopeful about the future, starting with Gunnell and including the personnel Arizona returns at various other spots. There’s even hope for the ASU game, believe it or not. The Wildcats were in similarly dire straits in 2016, having lost eight straight, when they thumped the Sun Devils 56-35. No one saw that one coming. The game was in Tucson, of course, and the Cats had a healthier line, which enabled them to rush for a school-record 511 yards. Strange things happen in this rivalry. It isn’t a tangible or quantifiable factor, but it’s better than nothing.
Contact sports reporter Michael Lev at 573-4148 or email@example.com. On Twitter @michaeljlev