A quarterback change from veteran Khalil Tate to true freshman Grant Gunnell at USC tonight might be temporary, but Arizona’s lopsided losses in consecutive games to Washington and the Trojans will likely have a lasting effect on the Wildcats’ season.
Arizona (4-3, 2-2 Pac-12) has gone from starting the Pac-12 portion of the schedule with wins over UCLA and Colorado to getting outscored 51-27 by the Huskies and 41-14 by the Trojans.
Now, the Wildcats must prepare for a road trip next Saturday to Stanford, a team that should be beatable given the Cardinal’s 34-16 loss at UCLA on Thursday. Another potential win could come Nov. 4 at home against Oregon State before the gauntlet of games against Oregon, Utah and ASU.
With how Arizona has been outscored 92-41 the last two weeks no game is a given.
Tate was replaced by Gunnell in the third quarter against USC after he was sacked six times and produced only 47 yards passing on 6-of-10 completions. The sacks resulted in him ending at minus-27 yards rushing on nine attempts.
Gunnell was sacked only once but was constantly pressured, including on his very first pass attempt that resulted in a USC interception. He completed 16 of 26 pass attempts for 196 yards with two touchdown passes to Brian Casteel — a 56-yard catch-and-run early in the fourth quarter by Casteel and a 27-yard connection with only 28 seconds left.
Arizona coach Kevin Sumlin called Gunnell a “tough guy” during the radio postgame interview with Brian Jeffries and Lamont Lovett.
It’s a tough call to bench a senior, but Arizona has to give Grant Gunnell a shot next week at Stanford.
“It was tough for everybody but he’s tough. He threw some good balls. His presence was good,” Sumlin said. “I thought it was a good experience for him.
“(Playing against USC) was really valuable. We put him in there to get a spark going. We weren’t able to do that. But as the game started to get out of hand, he kept playing. He took some hits, threw some good balls. That’s great experience for him down the road.”
When Jeffries asked about Gunnell’s role going forward, Sumlin was non-committal of it being as a starter.
“Not yet. We’ll discuss that this week,” Sumlin said. “You get better by playing. That’s where we are. He’s going to play some more this year.”
Kevin Sumlin explains the decision to replace QB Khalil Tate with Grant Gunnell in the second half.
Sumlin says “there’s no quarterback controversy right now” and Tate will start next week against Stanford. pic.twitter.com/yNA0VLIdJI
Sumlin told reporters in a press conference later that a quarterback controversy does not exist and that Tate will start against Stanford.
For the second consecutive week, Arizona’s mistakes on offense and special teams put its defense in a bind from the start. The defense managed to keep the game relatively close before USC went up 17-0 with 1:07 left in the first half on a Markese Stepp 12-yard run.
USC (4-3, 3-1) took advantage of Stanley Berryhill fumbling a fair catch on a punt return and Michael Wiley losing the ball on a run in Trojan territory to take a 10-0 lead with 23 seconds remaining in the first quarter.
“It’s something we’re working hard to correct,” Sumlin said of the early turnovers. “We couldn’t recover from it.”
The dam broke for Arizona’s defense when freshman Kenan Christon — far down the depth chart but playing because of USC’s rash of injuries — rushed for a 55-yard touchdown with 13:13 left in regulation to put the Trojans ahead 34-0.
USC beat Arizona for the seventh consecutive time, including five times in a row at the Coliseum. The Trojans’ seven sacks — a couple of which occurred when Tate ran out of bounds instead of throwing the ball away — were their most since 2013 against Hawaii.
Sumlin said USC’s blitzing was disruptive but also mentioned that “they still were able to get pressure with four men.”
Kevin Sumlin says there is no “quarterback controversy” and Khalil Tate will start next weekend against Stanford
“It was tough up front and some of it was just really sometimes assignments. Sometimes it was just physical matchups. We have to go back and look at it. (Blitzing) is something we’re going to see. We’re going to have to be able to handle that.”
Gunnell’s touchdown passes to Casteel in the fourth quarter provided little consolation for this game but it might spark controversy for the freshman to start at Stanford from some fans despite Sumlin’s postgame comments.
USC appears to be in good shape with its true freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis — who played for a 3-7 Desert Mountain High School team last season at Scottsdale. Slovis completed 19 of 28 passes for 232 yards and two touchdowns without an interception.
Christon finished with 103 yards on eight carries.
Promising for Arizona was its run production with J.J. Taylor (84 yards on 16 carries) and Nathan Tilford (61 yards on seven rushes).
Sumlin said he told his team after the game he is looking for leaders to step up in a time of adversity.
“It’s easy to have that kind of energy in preparation when things are going well,” he said. “We’ve got to have some leadership from our players but it also starts with me next week in our preparation. We can’t go backwards.
“We’ve got to keep pushing. We have to keep moving forward. We have another challenge next week.”
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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.