Here are three things to watch in the Arizona Wildcats’ home opener vs. NAU at Arizona Stadium (Saturday, 7:45 p.m., Pac-12 Networks), plus a score prediction and some pertinent preview links:
1. MORE RUSHING
It’s been our stance that Arizona should have come out running against Hawaii, no matter what defensive looks the Rainbow Warriors were throwing at the Wildcats. If you’re still not convinced, listen to UA sophomore tackle Donovan Laie. “With the backs that we got, especially with the new addition (Michael Wiley), I think it's important that we do run, just because we're really talented in the back position,” Laie said this week. “I think running the ball is our strength.” Arizona has led the Pac-12 in rushing for three straight seasons. Running back is its deepest position, led by third-team All-American J.J. Taylor. Backs need to be touching the ball 35-40 times per game. That total, including receptions, was 23 against Hawaii. Although NAU held Missouri State to 40 net rushing yards last week, recent history suggests the ground will provide a path to success for the UA offense. The Wildcats have rushed for 1,005 yards in their past two meetings with the Lumberjacks. (By the way, we don’t see this as a game in which QB Khalil Tate uses his legs that much. If the contest goes according to plan, it becomes a save-it-for-Texas Tech scenario.)
2. MORE PRESSURE
Were Arizona’s defensive schemes questionable against Hawaii? Yeah, maybe. Asking linebacker Colin Schooler to run with speedy slot receivers in the “Tampa 2” probably isn’t the best use of his skill set. But no matter what defensive coordinator Marcel Yates comes up with, it won’t work without a pass rush from the front four (our preferred number of defensive linemen in most scenarios). It’s imperative that the Wildcats’ linemen crank up the pressure. Their secondary obviously could use the help, and their pass rushers could use a confidence boost. JB Brown and Jalen Harris didn’t have the performances they were hoping for against the Rainbow Warriors, but we aren’t backing off the notion that they’re primed for breakout seasons. They showed too much potential late last fall and throughout the offseason to regress. Junior-college transfers Trevon Mason and Myles Tapusoa should fare better in their second game. That said, we’d like to see more of assignment-sound veteran Finton Connolly, who played only a bit role against Hawaii. If they can’t get the rush going against NAU, the Wildcats won’t stand much of a chance against Texas Tech, whose quarterback, Alan Bowman, led FBS with 436 passing yards in Week 1.
3. MORE FRESHMEN
Although Arizona State struggled to pull away from a Big Sky opponent (Sacramento State) on Friday, the expectation here is that Arizona will have little difficulty with NAU. If so, Kevin Sumlin and his staff will have ample opportunity to play freshmen. The redshirt rule implemented last season allows players who haven’t previously redshirted to appear in up to four games without losing a year of eligibility. So there’s no reason not to give freshman quarterback Grant Gunnell a series or two in the second half if the game is out of hand. Another position where freshmen could get some run is wide receiver. Boobie Curry, Jalen Johnson and Jaden Mitchell all had impressive moments at various points in the offseason. None played against Hawaii. That should change Saturday night, assuming they’re healthy. Laie mentioned Wiley, who already seems to be part of the plan. As promising as he looked as a receiver, Wiley could stand to be more patient as a runner. Getting multiple carries against the Lumberjacks would give him a chance to find that rhythm. On defense, we already saw cornerbacks Christian Roland-Wallace and Bobby Wolfe for extended stretches. Linebacker Derrion Clark is another defender to keep an eye on. Finally, Kyle Ostendorp’s kicking coach tweeted that the freshmen punter is set to make his first start. Ostendorp retweeted the item.
FINAL SCORE: Arizona 56, NAU 17
GAME PREVIEW LINKS:
- Game advance: WR Stanley Berryhill’s journey to redemption, recognition continues vs. NAU
- UA-NAU storylines: The Wildcats’ unmet expectations, Cunningham’s rapid ascent, Burrola’s ‘wakeup call’
- Greg Hansen: Mr. Football' on why Arizona's likely to keep Marcel Yates, the Cats' history with NAU — and a prediction
- Opponent profile: Case Cookus chose football over firefighting, got hot and found a home at NAU
- Opponent Q&A: NAU coach Chris Ball on living with Kevin Sumlin, loving Pullman and preparing for Arizona