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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Commentary: Wildcats’ first win under Sumlin won’t be easy

Madeleine Viceconte
The Wildcats offensive lineman collide with BYU’s defense during the 2nd half of the game. Wildcats faced off with BYU on Sep 1 at the Arizona Stadium.

When first-year Arizona head coach Kevin Sumlin mentioned a culture change this summer, nobody expected the Wildcats to begin the season 0-2. 

Heading into its final non-conference game versus Southern Utah on Saturday night, Arizona isn’t just eyeing its first win of the 2018 campaign – the Wildcats try to make a statement in order for Sumlin’s inaugural crusade to avert a crisis. 

At 8 p.m., the Wildcats will face off against a Southern Utah team that, despite an 0-2 start as well, realistically has more momentum in their favor. The Thunderbirds’ most recent matchup versus fellow Pac-12 foe Oregon State ended in a 48-25 loss. In their season opener, the Thunderbirds fell by less than a touchdown in heartbreaking fashion to North Alabama in a back-and-forth game. 

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Compared to Arizona’s two outings – they were boat-raced by Houston and physically outmatched by BYU – Southern Utah seems to be on the verge of victory.

The Wildcats will need to approach this game with a different mentality if they’re going to avoid a three-game skid to start the season. Coaches and players alike have yet to prove that they’re deserving of any of the offseason hype eliciting a new era of Arizona football. The bottom line, though, is that the Wildcats will need to execute and create a plethora of highlight-reel plays on both sides of the ball to regain some form of confidence. 

A quick start on offense and maximum effort on defense will be two keys to this contest. 

Arizona can’t afford a repeat of their season-opening performance against BYU, nor can they sleep through the first half like they did in Houston. Khalil Tate and the offense have to find success early on to eliminate the chance of defensive coordinator Marcel Yates’ unit getting gassed. At the same time, Arizona’s defense needs to play with more passion and quickly develop a knack for creating turnovers and getting after the quarterback. 

Through two games, Arizona has scored just 10 first-half points. Defensively, they’ve been even worse, logging zero combined sacks and takeaways through eight quarters. 

The lack of overall production is a result of the combination of unfamiliarity with new schematics, missing key starters at crucial positions and a need for larger, more physical bodies up front. The Wildcats won’t solve some of these problems overnight — or even through two games, evidently — but there’s already been a long enough wait for improvements on the defensive side of the ball. Yates’ time in charge of the defense won’t last much longer if his players don’t start performing at a higher level. 

Although Southern Utah is an FCS program that doesn’t play as competitive as a schedule as Arizona, the Thunderbirds have enough weapons on offense to pose a threat to the Wildcats defense. 

Khalil Tate may be the bigger-name quarterback in this matchup, but Southern Utah’s junior signal-caller Chris Helbig has gotten off to a much hotter start this season. Through two games, the 6-foot-4, 214 pound pocket-passer has been the Thunderbirds’ most efficient player. Helbig has accounted for 656 yards and four touchdowns through the air, while completing 68 percent of his passes. He’s also fared much better than Tate has on the ground, despite a difference in athleticism, rushing for 30 yards and a touchdown in both of Southern Utah’s losses. 

Arizona’s secondary will likely have their hands full on Saturday night, which leads us right back to the two areas of the Wildcats’ defense that have been detrimental to the team’s overall success thus far: an inept pass-rush and inability to force turnovers. 

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Yates and his defenders will fall further under the microscope if they can’t take care of business on their home turf this weekend. The Wildcats’ defense could greatly benefit from increased urgency and leadership, aside from middle linebacker Colin Schooler, who leads the team in tackles. A healthy cornerback in Jace Whittaker would also strengthen Arizona’s chances of slowing down the Thunderbirds’ passing game. 

Offensively, Southern Utah has surrendered an average of 282 yards per game on the ground. If Arizona can’t restore its dominant rushing attack on Saturday night – especially with the return of bookend left tackle Layth Friekh — then it will be hard to be optimistic going forward.

This is a game that would typically serve as a tune-up for the Wildcats ahead of conference play. This season has already proven to be far from typical, though. 

Sumlin’s squad finds itself in a must-win scenario against an FCS opponent on Saturday night. For the first time in recent memory, Arizona isn’t expected to pile on the points.    

Follow Rob Kleifield on Twitter

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