Somewhere Mike Canales is chuckling. Everywhere UA fans are groaning.
What was supposed to be the debut of Arizona’s new spread offense sure did look a lot like the offenses the Wildcats were running when Canales was calling the plays. Very conservative. Very vanilla. Very three and out-ish.
Arizona had only one first down in the first half. It was a half that saw tailback Chris Jennings touch the ball on 15 of Arizona’s 23 plays. While Jennings has proven himself to be a serviceable tailback, the Wildcats have several playmakers on offense that were completely neglected.
Highly touted freshman tight end Rob Gronkowski had only one reception – for 17 yards!
Highly touted sophomore fullback Earl Mitchell had no carries and only one reception – for a 7-yard touchdown!
Highly touted sophomore receiver Delashaun Dean had only four receptions – for 88 yards!
Jennings, all in all, touched the ball 23 times for a total of 69 yards. The Wildcats threw to him 9 times out of the backfield for 30 yards. He rushed 14 times for 39 yards. He averaged 3.3 yards per reception and 2.8 yards per carry.
These by no means are gaudy numbers. Jennings did what he could, but you have to question what Arizona was thinking in continually getting him the ball when the results were just okay.
The blame lies somewhere between Sonny Dykes’ play calling from the sidelines and Willie Tuitama’s constant audibling at the line of scrimmage.
More often than not, when Arizona audibled out of a play, they threw short or ran the draw. Every time, the Cougars were there just waiting to make the tackle.
Further complicating matters was Arizona’s inability to generate any kind of offensive push at the line of scrimmage. BYU was able to control the line of scrimmage by rushing only three and dropping eight into coverage. This effectively enabled the Cougars to close off the deep passing lanes and keep everything Arizona tried to do on offense underneath.
Still, Arizona could have exploited the defense. In fact, when they tried, they did. Dean was able to get downfield regularly against BYU and make big catches. He and Tuitama seemed to be reading each other’s minds and when provided with the opportunity, the two connected for large gains.
One example came in the fourth quarter when the pair hooked up for a 34-yard strike. The play began ominously when a bad snap left Tuitama scrambling to pick up the football. Once he did, he composed himself well enough to roll to his right and deliver the ball to Dean who flushed his route to the right sideline to give his quarterback a better angle.
Although the play wasn’t designed this way, it proved two things. One, Dean is an excellent receiver because who understood that it’s his responsibility to break off his original route to better aid his scrambling quarterback. Two, Tuitama does have composure and does possess the ability to throw the deep ball with accuracy.
While Arizona avoided getting the ball to, or even playing, their playmakers, the same can’t be said for BYU.
Harvey Unga was the difference maker for BYU. His 186 yards of total offense and two touchdowns was enough to give the ‘Cats their sixth straight season-opening road loss.
BYU’s quarterback, Max Hall, also played very well in throwing for 288 yards and two scores.
Things could’ve been much different for Hall, though, had Arizona’s Wilrey Fontenot not dropped what should’ve been an easy interception for six. Combine this with Hall’s actual fumble for a turnover and it might have been the Wildcats who left LaVell Edwards Stadium with the 20-7 victory.
Unfortunately, for Arizona, the running theme under fourth year head coach Mike Stoops has been would-coulda-shoulda and Saturday was no different.
Arizona’s mounting losses under Stoops, whose career record with the Wildcats is now 12-23, has as much to do with philosophy and game planning as talent.
Philosophy in that Arizona plays way too conservatively. Game planning in that the team more often than not seems so incredibly unprepared. Talent in that this is really the first season where Arizona has as much talent amassed on their sidelines as their opponents.
The offense is way too conservative. That’s obvious, and it’s been obvious for three years and now one game. But even the defense is probably a tad more conservative then it should be. Arizona’s bend, don’t break defense is great in terms of keeping the score down, but a dose of aggression every now and again is needed to infuse a little enthusiasm into the bunch.
The corner blitz from Antoine Cason that forced Hall to fumble on BYU’s opening drive is a perfect example. Cason came off the edge untouched and got a clean hit on Hall.
Arizona’s offense couldn’t convert the turnover into any points and why? Because of the “C” word.
With the ball near midfield and coming off a turnover, an aggressive team who wants to make a statement on the road would run a play action pass and throw deep into the end zone to try and get a quick and easy score. It’s called the Shock Factor. Cal would do it. USC would certainly do it. Heck, even Washington State would do it.
What did Arizona do? They ran a dive play off tackle for a 4-yard gain. Was it a good play? In terms of yardage, of course it was – I’d take 2nd & 6 nine out of 10 times. But this was that one time where it would’ve been okay to go for the jugular.
Go for the score.
Make a statement.
Well, actually the play call did make a statement. It was just the statement Arizona fans did not want to hear again.
More importantly, it wasn’t the statement Arizona fans were promised when Dykes replaced Canales.
As for game planning, this is a growing deficiency with this coaching staff as Arizona is now 1-3 in season-changing games. The lone victory came last season against these same BYU Cougars. The 16-13, last-second win was needed to kick off the 2006 season. Three games later, though, in a match up with Washington that Stoops called the most important game of his career, the Wildcats got laughed off the field in a 21-10 home loss to an average-at-best Washington team.
To close the 2006 season, Arizona needed to only beat in-state rival Arizona State to secure the school’s first bowl bid since 1998. The game was at home. Arizona had won three straight games over ranked schools Washington State and California, and a good Oregon team. So, what did they do? They got spanked 28-14. The previous year, after dominating #7 UCLA 52-14, the Wildcats traveled to winless Washington and got rolled.
The similarity in all these losses, a similarity that can be applied to Saturday’s lackluster performance at BYU, was how flat Arizona looked in each game. In contests that warrant emotion, the Wildcats have been emotionless.
Winning or losing is one thing, but playing flat is an entirely different beast that Arizona under Stoops has to address ASAP. The team cannot continue to only get up for the big games because for a program that has achieved as few successes as the Wildcats have since Dick Tomey was outed by the university, its alumni, and its fans, every opportunity to win is something that must be valued.
In regards to talent, there’s no question Arizona was outmanned when Stoops and his staff arrived on campus. They may still be slightly outmanned, but thanks to some incredible recruiting by Stoops’ staff the talent gap is rapidly closing.
The key now is getting the ball into the right players’ hands. That begins by getting the right people on the field.
Tuitama proved Saturday that despite public opinion, he can take a hit as he was hammered to the ground early in the third quarter. He also proved that he is capable of running the spread offense as he connected with seven different receivers. He also proved that he can throw a strike down the field when he wants to, or when he’s allowed to.
Many of Tuitama’s best plays during his young career have come when he rolls to his right. The 34-yard pass to Dean is one example. Last season’s play to open the LSU game is another example. A third would be his 50-yard touchdown pass to Thomas that ignited the blowout of UCLA in 2005.
Is Arizona’s coaching staff willing to take requests or are they going to remain stubborn and continue to play conservatively? If they are taking requests then consider this: Move the pocket. Roll Tuitama to the right and play to his strengths on crucial downs.
As one UA fan said to me after Saturday’s loss, “it seems like every year we have to open the season 2-4 before we start to throw caution to the wind and just play football.”
I couldn’t agree more. Arizona literally has nothing to lose. And if they start playing that way then maybe they’ll do something they haven’t been able to consistently do – win.
Let us not forget that after a disheartening loss to Arizona last season BYU when on to win 10 of their next 11 games.
Arizona’s season is not lost after only one loss. But Saturday’s defeat did sting.
It’s time to throw caution to the wind and play loose. It’s time to break tendencies. It’s time to stop talking and start doing.
As Apollo Creed astutely said, “There is no tomorrow! There is no tomorrow! There is no tomorrow!”