No rest for the worries.
As good as Khalil Tate was Saturday night against FCS opponent Southern Utah, Arizona’s defense was the exact opposite and that should make for some sleepless nights around the Wildcats’ coaching offices with the Pac-12 season starting this week at Oregon State.
“We’re going to take a deep breath right now and then it’s back to work tomorrow because we’ve got conference play,” Kevin Sumlin said past midnight earlier this morning during the postgame press conference at Arizona Stadium
He glanced at his watch amused.
“It’s already … I’m sorry, we’ll be back today,” he said breaking out in laughter.
“I am going to go home and not sleep here,” he added in a reassuring tone.
With the late kickoffs in the Pac-12 — last night’s 62-31 scorefest started at 8 p.m. and lasted three-and-a-half hours — Sumlin admitted the part of his new job going to bed after a game and waking up within a couple of hours on the same day is foreign to him.
Little or no time was spent enjoying the first win of the Sumlin era, especially with the defense allowing an alarming 193 yards on the ground to a winless Big Sky team such as Southern Utah. The Thunderbirds had 463 yards of total offense and converted 15 of their 30 first downs on third and fourth down plays.
They were 10-of-22 on third downs and an amazing 5-of-6 on fourth-down tries, for a success rate of 53.5 percent.
“Our discussion in the locker room was about, ‘Hey, look, let’s enjoy this but we have to come back tomorrow and Monday and just be honest with ourselves just like we were last week,” Sumlin said. “What are our deficiencies? Where can we get better? What do we need to do?
“The things that jump out to me is still third downs (on defense). … We’ve got to get off the field on third down on defense. We got our first sack and we our first turnover tonight. (Arizona defensive coordinator) Marcel (Yates) was still trying. You’ve got to get one before you get any. Tonight is a glass half-full night. It might not be on Monday but tonight it is.”
The injuries on the defensive line are a major concern.
Defensive end Justin Belknap and nose guard Dereck Boles started the first two games against BYU and Houston but were out of the starting lineup last night. Defensive tackle P.J. Johnson, who started against BYU, did not play because of a leg injury.
Belknap, who had a safety last week against Houston, is likely out for the season with a broken foot. Boles left the game at Houston in the first half and did not return because of an injury. Boles, who had two tackles last night, played sparingly and was replaced in the starting lineup by junior Abraham Maiava Jr. (who had a tackle for loss).
“You saw some guys in boots and on scooters that we could use,” Sumlin said of Belknap and Johnson. “The improvisation with personnel, getting that personnel out there, was as big as anything.”
He termed the starts of defensive tackle Finton Connolly and Maiava, “battlefield promotions.”
The Wildcats’ defense appears to be going into Pac-12 war without enough artillery. The only bombs are coming from Tate’s arm, but if he strikes quick or has three-and-outs, the defense is under more pressure.
Arizona had its first two sacks of the season against Southern Utah — by linebackers Anthony Pandy and Kylan Wilborn — but the Wildcats are far from having an imposing defensive front.
“We’re going to be more physical coming up,” said safety Jarrius Wallace, who had Arizona’s first interception of the season. “We’re going to emphasize that coming up in practice this week. In the next game, for sure, we’re going to be a physical defense that will cause havoc. That’s more of an important thing.”
Yates might not be fighting for his job, although he is in his third year as the defensive coordinator and one reason why Sumlin retained him is because he recruited most of his players and has a connection with them. They lobbied for him to replace Rich Rodriguez as head coach.
Talk on sports radio last week included Yates being on the hot seat because of Arizona’s defensive performance. The Wildcats rank No. 112 out of 130 FBS teams allowing 468.7 yards a game.
They have finished No. 119 last year and No. 115 in 2016 under Yates. Injuries have occurred, but a team can use that excuse to a certain extent. The bottom line: Arizona’s defense is not showing improvement under Yates, and he is as much to blame for the deficiencies as his predecessor Jeff Casteel, who was shown the door by Rodriguez after his 3-3-5 scheme was openly criticized in Tucson.
Yates was hired from Boise State by Rodriguez to replace Casteel in 2015 after the Broncos ranked No. 12 nationally in total defense and No. 6 in rushing defense. There’s a catch to that, however. The Broncos did not play a team ranked in the AP Top 25 that season. Boise State was not challenged in the Mountain West week in and week out like Arizona has seen in the Pac-12 the last couple of years and will see this season.
Arizona coach Kevin Sumlin called the win over Southern Utah a "glass-half-full night." OK, we'll play along for now…https://t.co/KI0iDUOxZz
— Anthony Gimino (@AGWildcatReport) September 16, 2018
These are very lean times on defense for a program that boasts the famed Desert Swarm unit and defensive legends such as Ricky Hunley, Chuck Cecil, Rob Waldrop, Tedy Bruschi and Chris McAlister.
ESPN commentator David Pollack made the criticism — rightfully so — last week before the Houston game, “Has Arizona been physical in the last 10 years?”
Ten years might be pushing it, but Arizona has not finished higher than No. 73 in total defense since the start of the Rodriguez era in 2012.
“We just have to be a lot more physical I think,” Pandy said.
That “I think” comment will become “I know” pretty fast — Monday, to be precise, without much sleep in between for Sumlin, Yates and Co.
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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.