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 34-6 loss at No. 6 Oregon on Saturday night:
1. OFFENSE GOES OFF-LINE
There’s no shame in struggling to move the ball against the Ducks. Oregon has held six opponents to fewer than 10 points – something it hadn’t done in almost 60 years. The frustrating part for Arizona is that many of its offensive issues were self-inflicted. Six of the Wildcats’ eight penalties were on the offense. Four were false starts. One was for an illegal shift. Another was a post-play personal foul committed by an overzealous offensive lineman. In addition to the penalties – which included false starts on the first UA offensive play of each half – the patchwork offensive line was guilty of numerous breakdowns. As Kevin Sumlin said after the game, “Inexperienced players get in there and do inexperienced things.” Arizona had three first-time starters on its line because of injuries. One of them, freshman Jordan Morgan, didn’t play in the second half because of injury. (Morgan was on the field for the final play of the first half – Lucas Havrisik’s 42-yard field goal – and did not appear to get hurt during the play.) Morgan’s absence forced further shuffling. At least twice in the second half, Oregon pass rushers descended upon Khalil Tate unblocked. You can blame a lot of factors for the Wildcats failing to score a touchdown for the first time since 2015. You can question Sumlin starting Grant Gunnell, lifting him after three series and not reinserting him until the fourth quarter. But the penalties and line issues were the primary causes.
2. DEFENSIVE DIFFERENCES
Giving up 471 yards and 34 points is no cause for celebration. But the way the defense played – especially compared to the previous two games – at least provided some proof that the players haven’t checked out and that Chuck Cecil’s influence is being felt. Aside from a handful of breakdowns – which were costly and which we’ll get to in the next item – the defense played with better discipline and liveliness. One example of the former: Tristan Cooper staying home on a back-side screen, forcing Justin Herbert to pull the ball down and enabling JB Brown to sack him in the first quarter. And of the latter: On the very last play of the game, three UA defenders – Cooper, Colin Schooler and Tony Fields II – aggressively pursued Cyrus Habibi-Likio on a run to the left side. Cecil also made some schematic tweaks. He used three down linemen almost exclusively and frequently deployed at least one linebacker near the line of scrimmage. He also called a couple of safety blitzes that produced a sack and a QB hit/incomplete pass. It might be too little, too late to rescue the 2019 Wildcats – or for Cecil to secure the permanent coordinator job – but it’s at least cause for encouragement.
3. EDUCATION OF A FRESHMAN
Cornerback Christian Roland-Wallace’s performance perfectly illustrated the ups and downs most true freshmen endure. He got burned for a pair of touchdowns yet also had a pair of pass breakups that showed his immense potential. Roland-Wallace and senior Jace Whittaker got their wires crossed on the first Oregon touchdown, a 73-yard pass from Herbert to Johnny Johnson III. Herbert’s subtle shoulder fake led both defenders to cover the flat. In the second quarter, a scrambling Herbert tried to hit Juwan Johnson in the corner of the end zone. But Roland-Wallace plastered him and nearly picked off the pass. Later in the period, Johnson beat Roland-Wallace on a crossing route to gain a first down. On the next play, Roland-Wallace defended him beautifully on a back-shoulder fade down the left sideline. Later on that drive, Johnson got behind Roland-Wallace for a TD. It came on a double-reverse flea-flicker. Roland-Wallace stuck with Johnson for most of the route but appeared to glance into the backfield for a split second, allowing Johnson to separate from him. By all accounts, Roland-Wallace is not only a special athlete but a disciplined, studious young man. If he can weather these tough times, they will only make him better.
4. THIS TIME IT’S PERSONNEL
Each week we provide some notes on individual players, so here goes … One thing for Gunnell to work on – being more cautious when he runs with the ball. He held it loosely in his right hand on a first-quarter scramble, leading to a fumble. Luckily, the ball trickled out of bounds. … J.J. Taylor. Running hard. Spinning out of tackles. Powering through defenders. Rinse. Repeat. … Donovan Laie played left guard for the first time before switching to left tackle after Morgan went down. Laie struggled at times with the speed and quickness of Oregon stud freshman Kayvon Thibodeaux. Laie is hardly alone in that regard. … The stats might not reflect it, but DE Jalen Harris played one of his better games as a Wildcat. He twice beat Oregon star left tackle Penei Sewell with an inside burst and played with improved leverage against the run. … Safety Scottie Young Jr., who has had a disappointing junior season, had his best game of the year. He played with aggression and physicality, flying upfield to tackle ball-carriers. Young’s best role might be as an extra in-the-box defender.
5. HOPE OR HOPELESS?
Despite an abysmal offensive performance and a one-sided outcome, Arizona at least showed some signs of life in Eugene after an uninspiring performance against Oregon State. It doesn’t mean the UA is ready to upset No. 7 Utah and ruin the Utes’ season – although it’s happened before (see Nov. 14, 2015). The problem is that Utah’s strengths are similar to Oregon’s. The Utes have a physical defense filled with pro prospects and a powerful offensive line. Will the Wildcats’ line be intact by 8 p.m. Saturday? And if it’s not, what are the odds that Arizona can move the ball against the only defense in the Pac-12 that’s better than Oregon’s? The Wildcats will have plenty of motivation on senior night. They are as desperate as a program could be, needing two wins to secure a bowl berth – and avoid turning a 4-1 start into a nightmarish finish. It certainly appears that Arizona will keep fighting, which is something. But it’s tough for a middleweight to defeat a heavyweight. On paper, the Wildcats just aren’t in the Utes’ class.
Contact sports reporter Michael Lev at 573-4148 or email@example.com. On Twitter @michaeljlev