Editor’s note: Hello, reader. I’m just here to say that Max, our dear author of this piece, is perpetually pessimistic about his teams. The fact that this article is generally optimistic-ish means that he’s either A) began feverish delusions brought on by a combination of the Arizona desert heat and the desperately horrific first two weeks of the Wildcats’ football season or B) is an oracle sent here to reassure Wildcat fans of an improbably hopeful near future. Enjoy.
Why has Arizona seemingly taken a step back from where it was last season? Most of the starters returned and, where they didn’t, bigger bodies recruited by Coach Sumlin took their places. Khalil Tate spent all summer trying to add another element to his already Heisman-hopeful game. There has to be some sort of explanation (Editor’s note: May I present to you: Noel Mazzone and Kevin Sumlin’s coaching history?). For that, fans should use last year as a litmus test for where this team is compared to where they need to be.
We have a sweet taste left in our mouths from last season. The ‘Cats won a whopping five games in the Pac, up from just one the year prior. Tate emerged as a stud. Arizona was cheated by the refs in their bowl game and we know who would’ve won in overtime. And best of all, we upgraded in the head coaching department (I used “we” in that sentence, because everyone affiliated with the university was positively affected by RR’s firing, and as a student, I feel better knowing that the head coach of my football team is less likely to embarrass me). (Editor’s note: Did you upgrade, though?)
Now, if last year was so positive, and the team stayed constant in areas that it didn’t upgrade, why aren’t they playing better than they did last year? Let’s look at the first two games last year, a win at home over NAU and a home loss to Houston.
In week one, the ‘Cats crushed the NAU Lumberjacks 62-24. The score of that game is deceiving, though, because it didn’t seem like a blowout. By halftime, the score was just 34-14 in favor of Arizona and the offense looked rough at best. NAU had more first downs and led in total offense after the first half. Josh Pollack missed a PAT after Brandon Dawkins scored a touchdown with 00:21 left in the second quarter. Arizona possessed the ball for just ten minutes and change of the first half. And if you watched the game, it sure as hell didn’t pass the eye test. The second half was a blowout; the ‘Cats outscored NAU 28-0 in the final half hour, but I don’t want to talk about that because it doesn’t prove my point and I left that game at halftime with food poisoning. (Don’t eat questionable tuna and sushi from Park Student Union, no matter how digestible it may appear.)
The second game of the season, also against Houston, was a much different story. Arizona had a huge handicap in that game due to Hurricane Harvey, which cost Houston their week one, and it’s incalculable the mental toll that took on Houston’s players. Nevertheless, the Cougars came into Tucson and won. It was almost like the opposite of what happened in Houston way too early on Saturday morning — the teams combined for 35 points, nearly what was scored in the first half alone in the 2018 version of the game (Houston scored all 31 first half points).
Dismal play in the first two weeks of the season is something that the past two seasons have in common, but week three was when everything seemed to click together last season. The ‘Cats traveled on their first road trip of the season to El Paso and boat raced the UTEP Miners 63-16, where they scored the first 28 points of the game and led by a score of 35-9 at the half. This game was when UA started to look like the team that crushed Colorado, destroyed UCLA and Wazzu, beat Cal in double OT and had the opportunity to beat ASU and USC.
Arizona has a pivotal game next weekend against Southern Utah. They’re at the same skill level that UTEP was at last year and it’s at home. Sumlin and Co. need to find a way to right the ship and Southern Utah is the team against whom to do it. After all, Oregon State beat SUU 48-25, and, even if they’re improving, they’re still Oregon State.
The crowd will be there, the students will show up, but which Arizona team will? Will it be a team struggling to find their identity or a well put-together, driven team with a purpose and sense of direction? We’ll find out on Saturday at 8 PM.
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