Football Notebook: On return of the Friekh, Tate's potent passing and 'Scoop n' Score'
Shun Brown dodges a SUU defender and gets a touchdown for the Wildcats during the 2nd quarter. Arizona defeated Southern Utah 62-31.
Arizona notched its first win of the Kevin Sumlin era at Arizona Stadium on Saturday night versus the defending Big Sky champions, Southern Utah Thunderbirds.
The Wildcats were far from perfect in their 62-31 blowout win, but managed to make enough plays on offense and in the return game to ensure they wouldn’t fall to 0-3.
Here are some headlines from the game worthy of noting, as well as several points that could determine the trajectory of the remainder of Sumlin’s inaugural campaign.
The Return of the Friekh
Left tackle Layth Friekh returned to the starting lineup for the first time this season and his presence was immediately felt. The fifth-year senior, who served a two-game suspension after earning an extra year of eligibility this offseason, was instrumental to Arizona’s first victory.
“I just tried to pick up where I left off last year,” Friekh said.
He did just that, keeping quarterback Khalil Tate clean for the entire game and serving as the anchor of an offensive line that paved the way to 268 rushing yards.
His leadership among a unit that’s still without veteran center Nathan Eldridge proved to be a catalyst for the Wildcats offense. Arizona displayed its best offensive performance of the season on Saturday night, and it was partly because of Friekh’s return.
Khalil Tate didn’t have much time to operate the offense in the first half, as Arizona’s defense struggled mightily to get off of the field.
He did, however, make the most of his opportunities all night long. The junior signal-caller, who garnered Heisman hype this offseason, put together his best performance of the season. Surprisingly, his success was predominantly achieved through the air.
Tate completed 7 of just 12 pass attempts in the first half, but managed to find his two favorite targets, Tony Ellison and Shun Brown, for a pair of touchdowns. With more opportunities presented after halftime, Tate compiled his best passing stat-line of his promising, young career.
Arizona’s offense struck quickly at the start of the third quarter, capitalizing a five-play, 67-yard scoring drive with another passing touchdown from Tate to redshirt junior receiver Cedric Peterson. Aided by what felt like a dozen stalled Southern Utah drives, Tate continued to look deep and continued to find the end zone. Brown and Shawn Poindexter were the beneficiaries of two more Tate touchdowns as the game started to get out of hand.
Tate may not have got his motor going on the ground, but he certainly took what the defense was giving him tonight. In the end, the Wildcats star finished 13 of 20 for 349-yards and five touchdowns. According to Tate, he’s always “just one play away” from finding the open man and making defenses pay.
Scoop ‘n Score
Arizona running back J.J. Taylor corralled a Southern Utah kickoff and raced 84-yards to pay dirt at the start of the second quarter. An attempted squib quick down the middle of the field resulted in the elusive ball carrier leaving defenders in his tracks down the Wildcats sideline, giving new meaning to the term ‘scoop ‘n score.’
Taylor’s house call was the perfect blend of motivation and redemption after coughing up the football just outside of the Thunderbirds red-zone earlier in the contest. It also set the tone for the remainder of the game, as Taylor settled into his role in Arizona’s backfield en route to rushing for 54 yards on eight carries.
Bend but don’t break
Arizona fared much better in the second half, allowing just 14 points, but there are still a lot of concerns.
The Wildcats surrendered 242 total yards to the Thunderbirds in the first half, and if it weren’t for a series of unlucky drops early in the third quarter, Southern Utah’s passing game may have ran rampant for the entire game.
Thunderbirds quarterback Chris Helbig had his way with Arizona’s secondary for the majority of the contest.
Despite being Southern Utah’s most efficient player coming into the game, Arizona’s defenders didn’t seem to have any idea what to expect from Helbig.
Even if Marcel Yates didn’t have his defense up to speed ahead of the game, halftime would have proved to be a viable place to make changes and elicit better execution from his players.
Arizona was able to register its first sack and takeaway on Saturday, which is something that the unit can build upon going forward, but if UA’s defense struggles to get off the field once again versus Oregon State next week, they will continue to hinder this team’s overall success.
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