Arizona has reached the midway point of its season at .500, with a 3-3 overall record, middle of the road, which is an accurate way to describe this team.
The Wildcats have at times looked porous on defense lacking big plays, inefficient on offense with a different Khalil Tate this season passing more than running, and awful on special teams.
The counter to that is the Wildcats have also been opportunistic lately on defense causing multiple turnovers and making big plays and being productive on offense with balance between running with J.J. Taylor and the improved passing of Tate.
Special teams are still an overall weakness, specifically with the placekicker.
“All in all, there are a lot of lessons to be learned, as there are every week,” Arizona coach Kevin Sumlin said after the Wildcats defeated California 24-17 last night at Arizona Stadium. “Certainly, there has to be some confidence, just some growing confidence, of some guys who had some success tonight. That’s what happens. We have to figure out, ‘Hey look we’ve got to keep getting better. We just have to.’
“I’ll say this, it’s an interesting group of guys. You look at these six games, they never quit. They play hard to the end of every game. … Because of that, we had that discussion on Monday. They have not always done everything right. … The thing that has given us a chance in all of these games is their effort. As long as we continue to have that effort, we’re going to have a chance to win games.”
Arizona’s defense, which had only one interception and no fumbles recovered heading into last week’s game against USC, took advantage of four turnovers by California quarterback Brandon McIlwain in the second half to pull away last night.
The Wildcats (3-3 overall, 2-1 in the Pac-12) turned two interceptions thrown by McIlwain into touchdowns. Arizona safety Scottie Young Jr. had two interceptions, including one that he returned 24 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
“Every day we’ve been working on trying to take the ball away, get takeaways at the end of practice and during practice, strip the ball, whether it’s punching it out or picking it off, just having a see-ball, get-ball mentality,” Young said.
“That’s what we had tonight. We’ve been having that the last few weeks. That’s why you’ve been seeing a lot more turnovers from us lately.”
How good is Arizona? Nobody knows, not even Sumlin. The Wildcats’ 120 points scored in the second half ranks No. 1 in the nation. In the first half, they are being outscored 93-58.
Cal (3-2, 0-2) has now lost 14 straight conference road games dating to Sept. 26, 2015, when the Golden Bears won at Washington with Jared Goff a junior at quarterback.
Arizona extended its winning streak to five games over Cal in the series dating to 2010. The Golden Bears have also not won in Tucson since 2004, a span of five games.
The time when Cal was a thorn to Arizona’s side, keeping the Wildcats out of the Rose Bowl in 1993, for example, is now a distant memory although still painful.
“Everybody on our team works so hard,” said linebacker Colin Schooler, who once again stood out against Cal after knocking down that pass last year that stopped the Golden Bears’ threat in overtime in Arizona’s win in Berkeley.
“The fact that we had only two wins to show for the whole off-season (heading into the Cal game), that’s just so unacceptable. There’s just so many little things that can go differently for us that can be game-changing whether it is in the first quarter or in the last two minutes of the game. I feel like we’re doing a better job of making those 50-50 plays and everybody is doing their job and getting to the ball.”
Arizona took a 17-14 lead with 3:19 left in the third quarter on a fluke play after Schooler intercepted a pass thrown by McIlwain, a sophomore transfer from South Carolina. Schooler ran 39 yards before Cal receiver Jeremiah Hawkins knocked the ball loose from behind.
Azizi Hearn picked up the ball and ran 34 yards to the end zone.
“The guy who has a nose for the ball, that’s not what it is. He’s just working hard,” Sumlin said trying in his way to explain the play. “A lot of times when you play with that kind of effort, the ball is going to bounce your way more often than not.”
On Cal’s next possession, McIlwain engineered a drive, starting at the Golden Bears’ 25-yard, down to the Arizona 3 for a fourth-and-1 situation. He ran up the middle off a shotgun and was stopped by four Arizona tacklers short of the first down with 12:15 left in the fourth quarter.
Defensive tackle Dereck Boles was credited with the tackle.
“That was huge,” Schooler said. “If they convert that or even score, we don’t have the lead any more. Who knows what happens the rest of that game. … That just shows everybody doing their job. That was a good stand.”
A wild turnover sequence followed with Taylor fumbling the ball away near midfield only for McIlwain to throw another interception — snagged by Young — on the next play.
Arizona’s Josh Pollack missed a 40-yard field goal, once again giving Cal hope, but McIlwain turned it over on a fumble caused by a sack by J.B. Brown that was recovered at the Arizona 38 by Boles.
After Cal forced Arizona to punt, McIlwain threw another interception on the first play, returned by Young for the touchdown.
The Bears closed the scoring on a 35-yard field goal by Greg Thomas with 16 seconds left. Cal was unsuccessful with the onside kick.
Tate was replaced with 14:02 left In the second quarter by true freshman Jamarye Joiner, a former Cienega High School star.
Tate, struggling with a sore ankle most of the season, was hobbled on the previous possession when a Cal defender landed on his ankle. Joiner’s appearance was planned throughout the week, however. Sumlin said he wanted to use Joiner in the third possession of the first half with the same scenario in the second half.
“He’s been getting reps .. a lot of guys have been getting reps,” Sumlin said. “He’s done a lot of good things in practice. I wanted to get him in there in the third quarter but the situation was not right to put him in. Going forward, we have planned to get him and other guys that are practicing like crazy and take some pressure off Khalil … You have to have people ready to go. The only way to do that is not just pracitc but also to get them in the game.”
Joiner lasted only one series, a three-and-out possession, before Tate returned. Tate finished 15 of 25 for 141 yards with a touchdown and interception. He also rushed for a season-high 40 yards on eight carries.
The anticipation of how his season will turn equals that of Arizona. Will he become more balanced and efficient? Will Arizona come up with more big plays on defense? Will Arizona win more?
Nobody has a clue from what has been seen so far. We learn more about Sumlin and the Wildcats Friday when they play at Utah.
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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.