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 41-14 loss at USC on Saturday:
1. SUMLIN’S QB DILEMMA
Kevin Sumlin explains the decision to replace QB Khalil Tate with Grant Gunnell in the second half. Sumlin says “there’s no quarterback controversy right now” and Tate will start next week against Stanford. pic.twitter.com/yNA0VLIdJI— The Wildcaster (@TheWildcaster) October 20, 2019
Based on their respective performances – albeit under different circumstances – it seemed possible that Kevin Sumlin would announce a quarterback change after the game. Senior Khalil Tate struggled to handle pressure or move the offense for the second straight week. Freshman Grant Gunnell continued to show promising signs. Yet Sumlin made it clear after the game: No QB controversy. No change to the depth chart. Sumlin could shift gears, of course. When he spoke to the media about a half-hour after Saturday’s game, Sumlin had yet to sit down with Tate. Nor had Sumlin huddled with Noel Mazzone and the other offensive coaches. It wouldn’t be shocking if Sumlin announced a change at his Monday news conference – but don’t expect it. Sumlin has remained loyal to and protective of Tate since they began working with each other in early 2018. Has Tate tested Sumlin’s patience? Undoubtedly. But this decision isn’t as simple as many would have you believe. It was just a little over two weeks ago that Tate put together his best game as a passer, throwing for 404 yards and three touchdowns at Colorado. He had been playing well before hitting a wall against Washington. It might be only a matter of time before Gunnell becomes Arizona’s starter. But it doesn’t look like that time will be this Saturday.
2. BREAKING DOWN THE BREAKDOWNS
Kevin Sumlin on turnovers and Arizona’s offense unable to move the ball vs. USC: pic.twitter.com/U3Uo6bTSqI— The Wildcaster (@TheWildcaster) October 20, 2019
So where did things go wrong for Tate in Los Angeles? Just like the UW game, Tate had a hard time dealing with the blitz. The offensive line did as well. But on at least half of Tate’s sacks, he could have gotten rid of the ball sooner and made a positive play – or avoided a negative one. We saw open outlet receivers on three occasions in the first half when Tate ended up getting sacked. Twice they were shallow crossing routes; the other was a short hook. Tate had enough time to get rid of the ball but either didn’t see those receivers or decided he could make something happen by fleeing the pocket. On the short hook, Tate actually pumped his arm in Boobie Curry’s direction but didn’t release the ball. Tate looked hesitant and uncertain. Gunnell also failed to identify open receivers on multiple occasions. The difference? Gunnell is a true freshman who just played in his fourth game. Tate is a senior who just made his 35th appearance. He’s in his second season in Mazzone’s scheme. Other elements of the offense have broken down, especially the pass protection the past two weeks. But the quarterback has to do his part, and Tate hasn’t since Colorado.
3. DEFENDING THE DEFENSE
Arizona LB Colin Schooler after the loss to USC: pic.twitter.com/G8Sshp45pS— The Wildcaster (@TheWildcaster) October 20, 2019
Arizona gave up 41 points, one week after surrendering 51. Yet one could make an argument – as crazy as it sounds – that the Wildcats played some of their best defense of the season against the Huskies and Trojans. Context is critical here. Much like the previous week, the defense received little to no help from the offense or special teams for long stretches against USC. Arizona repeatedly had to defend short fields, including drives that started at its 21-, 34- and 28-yard lines after turnovers. The Wildcats twice held the Trojans to field goals. The defense also didn’t get much help from the punting game – net average: 33.0 yards – and that led to USC having an average starting field position of its 40-yard line. Arizona’s average start was its 23 – a 17-yard disparity that would be hard for any team to overcome. The defense finally began to crack late in the third quarter, and the Wildcats allowed speedy USC freshman Kenan Christon to crease a pair of runs in the fourth. Unit leaders Colin Schooler and Jace Whittaker offered no excuses after the game, saying it was the defense’s job to stop the opponent no matter the circumstances. But the circumstances certainly haven’t been favorable the past two weeks.
4. THIS TIME IT’S PERSONNEL
Each week we provide some notes on individual players, so here goes … Gunnell got hit hard on his interception, but he might not have seen dropping linebacker Kana’i Mauga even if he hadn’t been. Mauga sneakily flashed into the path of crossing receiver Drew Dixon. … Powerful tailback Nathan Tilford again showed off his nimble footwork. His 21-yard run from the UA 2 in the fourth quarter might have been his best as a Wildcat. Tilford started left, stopped, cut back, avoided a defender, stiff-armed another and had enough speed to get around the edge. … Paiton Fears, making his second straight start at left guard, had a solid first half, especially in the run game. He did not look comfortable in pass protection in the second half. Shifting him back to right tackle and reinserting Robert Congel at left guard might be the way to go. … Even late in the game, when the outcome had been decided, DT Trevon Mason kept working to make plays. He has come on in a big way … DE Jalen Harris had an impactful first quarter but was quiet thereafter. Consistency remains elusive for him and many of his teammates. … Schooler was much more decisive and aggressive vs. USC than against Washington. … CB Bobby Wolfe neatly broke up a pass intended for Michael Pittman Jr. but later surrendered a 54-yard bomb to the big, strong USC veteran. Those experiences only will help the UA freshman in the long run.
5. MUST-WIN AT STANFORD?
Arizona cornerback Jace Whittaker on the loss to USC: pic.twitter.com/qcpVyjrAyG— The Wildcaster (@TheWildcaster) October 20, 2019
If you think Arizona’s QB situation is messy, you haven’t been following what’s gone on lately with the Wildcats’ next opponent. Stanford was down to its third-stringer against UCLA – among many other injury issues – and fell at home to the Bruins in decisive fashion. It was unclear as of Sunday night who would start for the Cardinal against the Cats. Regardless, this isn’t the Stanford we’ve become accustomed to in recent years. The offensive line has been decimated, and the Cardinal already has lost four games – all by double digits. In other words, Stanford is vulnerable. The same could be said about USC, which was missing several starting defenders and lost more key players during the game. Arizona couldn’t take advantage of that situation. Why might this Saturday be different? For one thing, Stanford doesn’t have the depth USC has. For another, Arizona’s sense of urgency should be set on maximum. The Wildcats are at risk of losing three straight games – essentially negating the momentum generated by their four-game win streak. If they can beat the Cardinal, they’ll put themselves in prime position to lock down a bowl berth the following week against Oregon State (which, admittedly, isn’t the easy out it used to be). Is Tate the best man to lead that charge? Sumlin certainly seemed to think so late Saturday night. We’ll see where things go from here.
Contact sports reporter Michael Lev at 573-4148 or email@example.com. On Twitter @michaeljlev