Heading into an important October, Arizona football still searches for its identity. Three months ago, excitement and anticipation filled the air in Tucson. Khalil Tate was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, tabbed as a Heisman favorite, and Kevin Sumlin’s debut couldn’t come any sooner.
Now five games into Sumlin’s inaugural campaign in the desert, Tate is doing his best to stay on the field and Sumlin is clinging onto the remains of what’s left of the offseason exuberance.
On Saturday night, Arizona will be gifted another opportunity to salvage any and all hope for a winning season.
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The Wildcats host a formerly ranked Cal team that’s coming off of a beat-down in Berkeley. Prior to last week’s drubbing at the hands of Justin Herbert and the Oregon Ducks, Cal was in the conversation as one of the Pac-12’s potential dark horses. Over the course of three games, the Golden Bears defense ranked near the top of the conference in several major categories, most notably, limiting opposing offenses to 170 yards per game through the air.
Up until Herbert came to town, Cal hadn’t allowed a 200-yard passer. Things change quickly, though, when squaring off against a legitimate Heisman front-runner. Last weekend, Cal was overwhelmed on its home field by a team equipped to dismantle its strengths. Herbert needed just two 30-plus-yard touchdown passes and 16 completions to put the Golden Bears out of game’s reach.
At about the same time that Cal realized its undefeated start would shortly end, Arizona succumbed to a 24-point deficit against USC. Despite an admirable defensive effort in the fourth quarter, the Wildcats were unable to complete a chaotic comeback versus the Trojans. Although Arizona’s defensive struggles have remained at the forefront since last season’s young cast began building its core, the Wildcats offense has been almost equally deficient in the team’s overall success this season.
With an almost unrecognizable quarterback from last year behind center – Tate has amassed just 69 yards on the ground in five games, after rushing for 1,411 yards in 10 appearances in 2017 – Arizona’s offense has distanced itself from a quarterback-led running attack.
The arrival of a new coaching staff, in Arizona’s case the addition of an experienced offensive coordinator like Noel Mazzone, often spawns a learning curve that only time can mend. For Arizona though, it seems that unfamiliar faces – and schemes – have ultimately set the Wildcats back.
Still boasting what currently ranks as the nation’s 29th best rushing offense, averaging 217.4 yards per game, Arizona’s offensive stats don’t necessarily reflect the team’s current struggles. The Wildcats pose a potentially lethal backfield duo comprised of J.J. Taylor and Gary Brightwell. Yet aside from posting a team effort, 442 yards rushing versus the worst run defense in the conference (Oregon State), Arizona’s run game has been a mere shell of a soon-to-be forgotten time.
In last week’s game versus Southern California – just a week removed from Taylor’s career day in Corvallis – Arizona’s offense quickly abandoned the run game. Tate routinely hurried his teammates back to the line of scrimmage, looking to attack USC’s secondary despite completing less than 50 percent of his throws.
The Trojans ability to deter the Wildcats from establishing their preferred method of attack was a result of Arizona’s outside receivers struggling to break-free from single coverage. As the Trojans loaded the box, daring Mazzone to commit to running between the tackles, USC’s cornerbacks simply outplayed the Wildcats' pass-catchers.
Facing off against one of the Pac-12’s premier defensive backfields this weekend, Arizona will have to do a better job of taking what the defense is giving them. Cal’s collapse in the secondary last week against Oregon was a rare occasion in this season.As inconsistent as Tate has been in the passing game, it will be imperative for the Wildcats to get back to what they do best: run the rock with efficiency on Saturday night.
This matchup couldn’t come at a more appropriate time for Sumlin’s squad. Arizona has to take advantage of Cal’s tentative front-seven from the get-go. The Golden Bears have been gashed for an average of 163.8 rushing yards per game.
Whether or not Arizona ever lives up to the offseason hype remains to be seen, but one thing is for certain: the Wildcats won’t reach their potential until they get back to their running ways.
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