Commentary: State of Arizona football ahead of matchup with Utah
The 2018 football season has been a tale of two teams for the Arizona Wildcats.
Sitting at 3-3 after garnering a pair of blowout victories against under-qualified teams, and clinching its first convincing win of sorts on the back of a defensive coming-out party versus Cal this past weekend, the Wildcats may finally have some momentum.
The Wildcats have the pieces to make things work, and they’ve demonstrated that on multiple occasions now. A revamped defensive line has elevated a previously non-existent pass-rush. Young players like J.B. Brown and Jalen Harris have added length and athleticism to a defense that has been desperate for some playmakers.
Just a few weeks ago, Marcel Yates' defense seemed to be the Wildcats biggest flaw. Now, Arizona’s defensive unit might just be the team’s strength.
The increase in defensive production from last week’s game (four takeaways and two sacks) is commendable, but it’s not anything to go crazy about.
Arizona was gashed on the ground in the first half by virtually a one-man crew -- Golden Bears quarterback Brandon McIlwain. In the second half, the Wildcats were abysmal defending the pass, surrendering a total of 32 completions and 315 yards against a run-first quarterback, making his first start nonetheless.
Still, the Wildcats prevailed, thanks to two second-half defensive touchdowns.
Given the little success that Arizona has had forcing turnovers prior to the win over Cal, it’s certainly a positive sign moving forward that there are capable playmakers across the board.
However, there are still concerns about UA's defense, particularly on third down. The 'Cats have allowed the opposition to convert on more than 50 percent of its third down attempts (Cal converted 53 percent of the time) and this is a recipe that could doom the Wildcats' defense almost as quickly as they made the jump from zero to hero.
That’s why, until Arizona’s offense gets rolling, this team’s ceiling isn’t very high, and the road ahead is much tougher than the road that’s already been traveled.
The numbers through the first half of Kevin Sumlin’s first season in the desert almost speak for themselves.
Arizona is 0-3 in games this year in which they fail to score in the first quarter.
That statistic worsens when discovering the Wildcats have totaled 10 combined first-half points in all three losses.
Conversely, Arizona hasn’t just scored in the opening quarter of all three of its wins, its also been the first to find the end zone.
It’s a simple stat, but one that has likely been overshadowed by dissatisfaction with Khalil Tate’s usage of the ground, a young and inexperienced offensive line and even the defense’s deficiencies to start the year.
That shouldn’t take away from its significance though. In Arizona’s case, a collection of differing starts has been the story of the season so far.
Arizona’s next opportunity to impose its will from the sound of the first whistle will be when the team travels to Salt Lake City to square off against a formidable Pac-12 South foe on Friday night.
Utah (3-2, 1-2) doesn’t pose as strong of an offense as upcoming opponents on Arizona’s schedule and only averages 25.8 points per game. But the Utes do operate one of the most balanced offensive attacks in the conference, with 212 passing yards per game and 177 rushing yards per game.
Defensively, Utah has very few holes, allowing just 17.2 points per game.
Tate and the offense won't be able to depend on defensive touchdowns every week, so they'll need to score more times than they did last week against Cal.
It’s already evident that the coaching staff isn’t afraid to throw true freshman Jamarye Joiner into the mix – Kevin Sumlin and Noel Mazzone are simply trying to find the spark that Arizona’s offense needs.
Arizona and Utah kick-off on Friday, Oct. 12 at 7 p.m., and the game will be broadcast on ESPN.
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