Every week throughout the season, we take a look back at the Arizona Wildcats’ previous game after re-watching it via the TV broadcast. Here are five key takeaways from the UA’s season-ending 24-14 loss at Arizona State on Saturday night:
1. THE KHALIL TATE EXPERIENCE
The way this game transpired for senior quarterback Khalil Tate felt fitting. We saw dazzling moments. We saw one-of-a-kind athleticism. We saw unforced errors. And we saw Arizona lose a game it could have won. It’s never any one player’s fault, and you could make a case – which the ESPN broadcast crew did – that none of Tate’s career-high three interceptions were his fault. So let’s set those aside for now. Plays that were equally frustrating included overthrowing J.J. Taylor and Brian Casteel on sideline passes that could have resulted in big gains. Tate’s arm talent is indisputable. But his accuracy never ticked up into the range commonplace for upper-tier college quarterbacks these days. His career high for completion percentage came in 2017, when he hit on 62% of his passes. Back then, defenses were so freaked out by Tate’s running that they frequently left receivers in one-on-one coverage. Speaking of which, Tate ran with force and ferocity against ASU. He put his shoulder down to finish runs. He even hurdled a defender. You couldn’t help but wonder: Where has that been for most of the past two seasons? To his credit, Tate gave it his all against his school’s bitterest rival. And he handled himself with aplomb during the postgame news conference – which hadn’t always been the case after difficult defeats.
2. COACHING ISSUES
Incredibly – or perhaps predictably – two of Tate’s interceptions came on miscommunications between the quarterback and his receivers. In-game communication issues plagued the Wildcats throughout the season, although mostly on the defensive side of the ball before Saturday night. Without the ability to quiz the participants in the aftermath – both Tate and UA coach Kevin Sumlin used the “miscommunication” tag after the game – it’s impossible to precisely assess blame. But at least some portion of it falls on Sumlin and his staff. It was somewhat understandable that the defense would have glitches amid the transition from Marcel Yates to Chuck Cecil at defensive coordinator (one of three in-season coaching changes on that side of the ball). It’s also not stunning that a true freshman, Boobie Curry, would be involved in one of them Saturday night. But considering the continuity of the offensive staff and how much Sumlin emphasizes communication, it’s baffling that these problems keep recurring. Ironing out those issues undoubtedly will be near the top of the to-do list for Sumlin and his staff this offseason. One more note on the coaching Saturday night: We disagreed, in the moment and upon further review, with each of Sumlin’s critical fourth-down decisions (two in the first quarter, one in the fourth). Those are judgment calls, and it’s easy to second-guess when the subsequent field-goal attempts are missed. We just would have gone the other way each time.
3. REMINISCENT OF 2016 …
… except that the Sun Devils flipped the script. The Wildcats’ best hope, in lieu of any obvious tactical advantages, was to duplicate what the ’16 Cats did: Put their losing streak in their rearview mirror and beat ASU with pure tenacity. Arizona played hard from beginning to end. The banged-up offensive line, in particular, performed valiantly. But in the second half, it was the Sun Devils who won the trench battle. It wasn’t quite as extreme as Arizona’s school-record 511-yard rushing output in ’16, but ASU finished with 234 yards – with 182 coming in the second half. After attempting 17 passes in the first half, Jayden Daniels threw just two in the second. Herm Edwards and his staff put the game in the hands of tailback Eno Benjamin, and he delivered, rushing 24 times for 142 yards and two touchdowns over the final 30 minutes (of which ASU had possession for 21:08). The Wildcats’ one-on-one, open-field tackling, of Benjamin and others, during the first half was as sound as it had been all season. But that proved to be fool’s gold. Benjamin dug deeper into his arsenal, using a variety of moves to elude the UA defenders who had corralled him in the first half. Benjamin’s effectiveness set up Daniels’ walk-in keeper on ASU’s 2-point conversion and his lone completion of the second half – a 10-yard bootleg pass to tight end Tommy Hudson in the fourth quarter. All three UA linebackers pursued Benjamin, leaving Hudson alone on the left side.
4. THIS TIME IT’S PERSONNEL
Each week we provide some notes on individual players, so here goes … RB Gary Brightwell really has improved as a runner, showing much better patience in the hole to complement his speed and power. He is a worthy successor to Taylor as Arizona’s lead back in 2020. … It was nice to see freshman WR Jalen Johnson snag a 20-yard pass from Tate in the second quarter. Johnson had an egregious drop vs. Utah the previous week. … It’s been hard to gauge the effectiveness of freshman OT Jordan Morgan because he hasn’t finished either of his two starts. But if the coaches view him as the starting left tackle in 2020, they’ll have to figure out the best landing spot for Donovan Laie. He played left guard when Morgan manned left tackle. … Kudos to senior DE Justin Belknap for getting a sack in his final collegiate game. Fellow DE Kylan Wilborn wasn’t so fortunate. He couldn’t get a grasp of Daniels in the backfield on third-and-5 from the UA 22 early in the third quarter. A sack likely would have forced a field-goal try. Instead, Daniels gained the first down, and ASU scored a touchdown. … Improving his lateral quickness should be an offseason priority for LB Colin Schooler, who, if he isn’t coming downhill to make a tackle, often ends up lunging. … Arizona moved Scottie Young Jr. from free safety to Bandit (boundary safety) over the latter half of the season, and it seemed to suit him better. We’ll see what the new DC has in store.
5. TRUSTING THE PROCESS
UA athletic director Dave Heeke announced after the game that Sumlin would remain the head coach, quelling the speculation that had run rampant for about a month. Both Heeke and Sumlin made references to “trusting the process.” What does that mean exactly? Sumlin cited recruiting and player development as the cornerstones of his philosophy. He and his staff have yet to prove they can do that at an acceptable level at Arizona, which offers challenges Sumlin didn’t face at Texas A&M. That’s really what the next year will be about for him: Proving he’s the right man for this job. Heeke’s announcement was not met with approval among the majority of UA fans who let their feelings be known on social media. But that’s beside the point now. A commitment has been made, and it’s up to Sumlin to justify Heeke’s decision. That means winning. Period. As Sumlin himself has said, life pays off on results. It’s time for him to deliver. If he does – if the Wildcats win – fans will show up at Arizona Stadium to support the team. Their current skepticism is completely warranted. Sumlin hasn’t produced what was promised here … yet. If he doesn’t in 2020 – if there isn’t clear evidence of improvement – he probably won’t get another chance.