Growing Pains: Year one of the Sumlin Era
Kevin Sumlin chats with a ref about a play during the game against ASU on Saturday, Nov. 24 at Arizona Stadium.
With seven returning starters on offense, nine on defense, a Heisman Trophy contender and a new head coach who has a proven track record of developing quarterbacks, the sky was the limit for Arizona football going into the 2018 season. That was, until the sky started to fall.
Week 1 of the season brought BYU to town, and the preseason hype brought along with it a nationally televised primetime game on ESPN. The dynamic quarterback Khalil Tate, who burst onto the scene last season, only had eight carries for 14 yards and threw 34 passes, more than he did in all but one game in 2017.
A Wildcat defense that brought back Marcel Yates and it’s two key playmakers in Colin Schooler and Tony Fields II gave up 21 points in the third quarter, and a late Arizona rally came up just short, falling 28-23.
Fans were confused as to why the player who broke the single-game record for rushing yards by a QB just a year earlier was now throwing the ball like a pocket passer. Was this a one-time thing or was this the direction the offense would take under head coach Kevin Sumlin? While there was still a sense of optimism, week 2 quickly put that to rest.
Arizona traveled to Houston in a matchup against the best defensive player in the country, Ed Oliver. Tate injured his ankle early on and the Wildcats sputtered, losing 18-45 in a game that was ugly from the beginning.
Tate tried to play through his injury much of the season, but was never really himself. He opened the game against Utah, but after injuring it again during a sack, Tate sat out the rest of the game, giving way to Rhett Rodriguez. The son of former head coach Rich Rodriguez started the next game for the man who replaced his father. Rodriguez had his moments, but he couldn’t lead Arizona to a victory against UCLA. Hope for a bowl game was bleak and pride looked to be all Arizona would play for, especially with then-No. 19 Oregon rolling into Arizona.
With Tate back in the saddle and finally healthy, Arizona showed signs of the team many thought they would be this season, blowing out Oregon 44-15. A win over Colorado even briefly put Arizona in a tie for first in the Pac-12 South Division, with a chance to potentially win the conference. Their trip to Pullman dashed those hopes quickly.
The Heisman Trophy candidate and rest of the offense put up 55 points in the first half. These are words many thought would be said about the Arizona program and Tate, and not the unlikely hopeful in Washington State QB Gardner Minshew. Minshew and Washington State hung 69 points on the ‘Cats, setting up a Territorial Cup with more than bragging rights on the line.
Arizona led 40-21 after three quarters over their rivals, with a chance at bowl eligibility and the only chance at salvaging the season hanging in the balance. ASU then put up 20 unanswered points in the fourth quarter, with conservative play calling on offense and a fumble by J.J. Taylor, setting up the Sun Devils for the game winning touchdown. A Josh Pollack 45-yard field goal went wide right with 11 seconds left, costing the Wildcats their shot at the six wins they needed for a bowl.
Going from a team considered by many experts a sleeper to win the Pac-12 South to not going to a bowl game at all, the first season of the Kevin Sumlin era will be considered a disappointment. With basketball always dominating the sports culture around campus and town, even just defeating their rivals from up north would’ve probably made the season acceptable to most Arizona fans. The loss and how it happened, however, is one that will be remembered around town for many years to come.
Arizona faces many questions going into next season as well. Will Tate return and remind fans what a healthy version of himself looks like for a full season or will he potentially look elsewhere? Will Sumlin shake things up at either of his coordinator positions moving forward? While offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone was brought over by Sumlin from Texas A&M, his play calling throughout the season has drawn the ire of many Arizona faithful, while Yates had an up-and-down season managing the defense.
Building a program takes time, and one can’t judge future success based on just one season when trying to establish a culture of their own. While patience will be key, there is no doubt that the up-and-down season that was will leave a sour taste around Arizona football until next season.
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