Arizona Football

Off-the-beaten-path storylines: Arizona Wildcats at Utah Utes

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Random thoughts while wondering what Tom Tunnicliffe was thinking when he was a true freshman quarterback starting his first game against No. 2 Notre Dame in 1980 at Arizona Stadium … Khalil Tate starting at Utah must be pretty tame compared to that, right? …

— Like Tate experienced at UCLA last week, Tunnicliffe had spot duty the week previous to his first start against the Fighting Irish when Arizona lost to Washington State 38-14 at Arizona Stadium. Tunnicliffe was 11 of 20 for only 120 yards against the Cougars after replacing ineffective second-string quarterback Kevin Ward. Regular starter Mark Fulcher was lost for the season in the second game of that season with a knee injury. According to an Arizona Republic report, Arizona’s fans cheered loudly when Tunnicliffe threw “deep” downfield — a 40-yard attempt, that was an incompletion, against the Cougs.

Arizona coach Larry Smith did not announce Tunnicliffe as his starter against Notre Dame until the team met the night before the game. Tunnicliffe claimed he was not nervous with his first starting assignment against Notre Dame, which was six games into the season.

An Arizona Republic clipping from Arizona's 20-3 loss to Notre Dame in 1980, the first start in the career of Tom Tunnicliffe (12) as a true freshman. Look at his wide eyes.

An Arizona Republic clipping from Arizona’s 20-3 loss to Notre Dame in 1980, the first start in the career of Tom Tunnicliffe (12) as a true freshman. Look at his wide eyes.

“I feel confident I can get the job done, just like I felt confident when I went in last Saturday night (against Washington State),” Tunnicliffe told the Republic. No doubt, Tate feels confident if he starts at Utah. He was the No. 4-rated dual-threat quarterback in the nation, as ranked by Rivals.com.

Tunnicliffe was a lot less under the radar 36 years ago — the Notre Dame game was not televised nationally. It was aired on a delayed basis the following day on networks that carried such Fighting Irish telecasts (I remember watching the game on Sunday morning in Kensington, Md., where our family lived at the time).

RELATED LINK: KHALIL TATE CAN BECOME 12TH ARIZONA FRESHMAN QB TO START SINCE THE WILDCATS JOINED THE PAC-10 IN 1978

Tunnicliffe, an undersized yet strong-armed quarterback recruit at 6’0″ and 180 pounds, said he noticed the Arizona crowd acknowledged his perceived deep pass against Washington State. “It made me feel good that I had a little bit of support out there,” he said. “I didn’t think anybody even knew who I was.” Everybody knows who Tate is with his potential in a much more diverse offense than what Smith used with Tunnicliffe back then. Social media, ESPN, Pac-12 Network, FS1 … they all make college athletes today unmistakable. How will Tate handle the pressure of that tonight at Utah if he starts?

Tunnicliffe was ineffective against the Irish, completing 15 of his 26 passes, mostly to running backs, for only 95 yards. He was intercepted twice. “In a first game against a good team, you have to expect a couple of mistakes,” Tunnicliffe told the Republic. “No one plays perfect.”

Tunnicliffe went on to have one of the elite careers for a quarterback at Arizona. Tate could begin that kind of journey tonight in Salt Lake City. …

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT … With a loss to Arizona today, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham can join former Oregon State coach Joe Avezzano as having the longest losing streak against the Wildcats — five games — of conference foes since the Pac-10 was formed in 1978. New Mexico State’s Jerry Hines has the longest losing streak of six games from 1932-37. NAU”s Jerome Souers is 0-8 against the Wildcats since 1999 but the Lumberjacks are an FCS school. Not fair to pick on Souers. …

Whittingham, in his 13th season, is a more elite coach than the late Avezzano (6-47-2 in his five years in Corvallis), so if Arizona does notch its fifth straight against him, it would be quite the accomplishment. Arizona fans likely care more about the Wildcats amassing a three-game winning streak against former ASU coach Dennis Erickson, who joined Whittingham’s staff in 2013. He is the associate head coach in charge of running backs for the Utes. Any victory over Erickson helps ease the pain — but does not totally wipe it away — from when Arizona lost 30-29 in double-overtime to Erickson’s Sun Devils at Arizona Stadium in 2010 when Alex Zendejas missed extra-point attempts in regulation and the second overtime.

Dating back to when Erickson was the offensive coordinator at San Jose State in 1979, Arizona is 9-9 against Erickson with him as an opposing coach either as head coach or assistant. The Wildcats are 4-4 against ranked teams of which Erickson is part of the coaching staff (Utah is ranked No. 24), none more memorable than the 29-0 drubbing of his 10th-ranked Miami team in the 1994 Fiesta Bowl. Arizona was 3-2 against him in his five years as ASU’s head coach. After losing five consecutive games to him between his stints at Oregon State and Arizona State, Arizona has won six of the last seven games with Erickson on the opposing coaching staff. That one loss? Yes, the 30-29 double-overtime loss to the Sun Devils.

ARIZONA’S RECORD VS. DENNIS ERICKSON
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WHAT HAPPENED TO ARIZONA’S RECEIVERS? … With the unsettled Arizona quarterback situation comes less productive numbers for Arizona’s receivers. Nobody thought Shun Brown would be the leading receiver five games into this season, yet the sophomore leads the Wildcats with only 17 receptions for 263 yards and two touchdowns. Nate Phillips has 14 catches for 122 yards and no touchdowns. Trey Griffey and Samajie Grant each have 12 receptions. Griffey has 197 yards receiving with one touchdown while Grant is at 142 yards with one score. As a group, the top four receivers have 55 catches for 724 yards with only four touchdowns.

Last season after five games — in which Arizona was 3-2 overall and 0-2 in the Pac-12 — the top four receivers combined for 69 receptions for 867 yards and 11 touchdowns. In 2014, Anu Solomon’s freshman season, after five games, in which the Wildcats were 5-0 and 2-0 (including an upset of No. 2 Oregon in Eugene), Arizona’s top four receivers combined for 85 for 1,233 yards and 11 touchdowns. Cayleb Jones and Phillips combined for 52 receptions at this point in 2014, only three less than what the Wildcats’ top four have produced this season.

The reason for the sharp decline in the passing game is obvious: Solomon’s injury woes with his concussion and knee problems has adversely affected the receiver production. Rich Rodriguez has resorted to use run-first, pass-second quarterbacks in the last two years with Jesse Scroggins, Jerrard Randall, Brandon Dawkins and now Tate. It’s enough to frustrate the likes of Phillips, Grant and Griffey, who are asked now to be more efficient blockers than receivers in Arizona’s execution. …

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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.

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