3 keys for Arizona football on the road against Oregon State
Kevin Sumlin coaches on the sideline during the Arizona v. BYU football game. This is Sumlin's first game as head coach.
Arizona faces its first conference opponent of the season on Saturday afternoon at 1:00 p.m. On the road in Corvallis, Oregon, the Wildcats will have their sights set on breaking the Beavers dam, and adding to their one-game winning streak.
Head coach Kevin Sumlin vouched that his team was headed in the right direction after garnering a blowout victory against Southern Utah last weekend.
A big offensive performance via the passing game led to Sumlin’s praise about Noel Mazzone’s unit.
“Third down, offensively, you want to be 40 percent or better. We’ve been able to reach that," Sumlin said.
He also admitted, however, that the defensive execution still hasn’t met his standards.
“Conversely, we have not met our goal on defense. That needs to be around 35 percent or lower," Sumlin said.
These statistics aren’t just a measure of efficiency – they’re tied directly to a team’s momentum and are typically a pertinent factor in the game’s outcome.
As a direct result of the defense’s inability to halt drives, the Wildcats offense has incessantly suffered. In the first half of last weekend’s game the Thunderbirds offense dominated time of possession, controlling the clock for nearly three times as long as Arizona did. Sumlin knows that the defensive struggles are fixable, but has to be worried about his players getting used to negative habits.
Arizona’s offense won’t be able to continually bail out its defense with chunk plays. “But the bottom line is, we haven’t hit our goals. That’s kept them on the field and allowed them to score points,” Sumlin said, referring to his defense’s need to buckle down.
In order for the first-year Arizona head coach to kick off Pac-12 play on the right foot, statistics like third down conversion rates, and time of possession should be high on the list of priorities for the Wildcats coaching staff.
Increased time of possession, and stout play on the opposite side of the ball won’t come automatically though. Arizona must succeed in other areas in order to improve their craft, both offensively and defensively.
Here are three keys for success that, if achieved, will propel the Wildcats to its first road win of the “New Era.” An Arizona victory also puts the team in control of its own destiny for the remainder of the season.
Treat this game like a business trip
Arizona enters the game as 5.5-point favorites, but that number would likely be doubled if the Wildcats hadn’t fluttered out of the gates the last time they traveled on the road. Arizona looked sloppy on primetime television versus the Houston Cougars just two weeks ago. An early start time, and brutal humidity likely played a significant role in the Wildcats downfall, but so did their evident body language, and defeated mindset. There’s no question that Arizona has to approach this game differently.
Last season versus the Beavers the Wildcats offense erased its defensive deficiencies behind a school-record 534-rushing yards. Khalil Tate rushed for 208-yards himself and the rest of Arizona’s backfield amassed more than 300-yards. Although Arizona’s current offensive line features four first-year starters, there’s no reason why the Wildcats can’t have their way on the ground in this matchup, too.
Through three games, two of which came against lesser opponents, Oregon State’s defense has allowed an average of 224.3-rushing yards per contest. Even if Arizona lacks experience up front, there should be a noticeable difference in talent among FCS teams and Pac-12 foes. The Wildcats need to approach this game with a mission in mind, and an immediate plan of action. Arizona coaches should be preaching 60 minutes of hard-fought football. With a proper mindset, and a sense of urgency everything else will fall into place.
Get after the quarterback
Arizona’s defense has been lacking in this department since Marcel Yates’ arrival in 2016, but it’s never been more obvious than now. The Wildcats defense boasts just two sacks to their name through three games. Due to an undetectable presence in the backfield, opposing quarterbacks have had plenty of time to go through their progressions, and find an open receiver.
That won’t fly this weekend. Arizona has been fortunate to have not played a Pac-12 opponent yet. The Wildcats secondary has routinely surrendered key conversions, and left targets uncovered across the field. Breakdowns in coverage coincide with a weak or non-existent pass-rush.
When Arizona’s front-seven fails to collapse the pocket, or force opposing quarterbacks to drop their eyes and readjust their feet, it’s nearly impossible for the backend to maintain proper positioning. Yates’ unit started to show progress versus Southern Utah – with two different players logging a sack, and safety Jarrius Wallace corralling an interception – but will need to foster major results in the coming weeks in order to give Arizona’s offense a chance to develop.
The Wildcats could have their way with Oregon State’s quarterback this weekend if Yates dices up the perfect combination of personnel, and play calling. With Arizona’s starting defensive end, Justin Belknap, out indefinitely with a foot injury, now is as good of a time as ever for Yates to take a look at several young pass-rushers.
Players like J.B. Brown, Jalen Harris, and Jalen Cochran will all see more snaps – their athleticism could reap rewards for Arizona’s defense. If the Wildcats can prove to get after the quarterback on Saturday, we’ll likely see more of Tate than we have been.
Establish the rushing attack
Despite most primary skill-position contributors returning from last season, Arizona’s offense has taken on a new approach this year. Under the guidance of Sumlin and Mazzone, Tate has reverted to becoming a pocket-passer with limited opportunities as a runner.
A nagging leg injury suffered against Houston has likely reasoned Tate to stay away from scrambling, and has limited play-calling chances to utilize his rushing skills, nevertheless Arizona’s offense has been completely one-dimensional – offensive production has been limited aside from Tate.
The Wildcats need to establish its dominant rushing attack in order to reach their full potential this season. The return of stalwart left tackle, Layth Friekh, boosted Arizona’s rushing attack last week, but the offensive line still has to do a better job of carving out lanes for ball carriers.
The Wildcats backfield is loaded with talent, but has been unable to showcase its ability for two reasons – Arizona has been dominated in terms of time of possession when the game is close, and there hasn’t been much continuity up front.
Saturday presents an intriguing opportunity for Arizona’s ground game to get back on track.
Even if Tate is still hobbled by his leg, the Wildcats handful of running backs could find plenty of room to run. Oregon State’s defense has been gashed between the tackles each contest. Much like Arizona’s defense, they’ve struggled to get off the field, and are prone to allowing big games on the ground.
If Arizona’s offense establishes a formidable rushing attack on Saturday, the Wildcats could find themselves in familiar territory. In 2017, Arizona’s offense had a field day against Oregon State – there’s no reason why they can’t repeat such success this time around.
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