Arizona lost its season opener against USC 34-30 on Saturday in heartbreaking fashion. The Trojans drove the ball downfield for a game-winning score giving the ball back to the Wildcats with just seconds left.
To start the season, Arizona had a ton of question marks on the defensive side of the ball after losing four players to the transfer portal.
Arizona’s defense gave up 173 yards rushing, had zero sacks on USC quarterback Kedon Slovis, and couldn’t create any turnovers.
However, it wasn’t all bad for the defense throughout the contest. Here are the top three things we learned about Arizona in its nail-biting loss to USC:
1. Gunnell has Wheels
Arizona quarterback Grant Gunnell is known as a traditional-style pocket passing QB that doesn’t have much mobility to hurt opposing defenses with his legs.
Well, Gunnell shocked people Saturday against USC, showing off his mobility as a 6-foot-6 QB. Throughout the game, the Trojans forced him to make plays with his legs, and he did just that, rushing for 40 yards on 13 carries.
Gunnell was leading the team in rushing with 56 yards early in the third quarter. If he can keep up this kind of pace, it will force defenses to not just sit back with the ball in his hands.
2. Special Teams Looks Improved
One of the weakest units last season for Arizona was special teams that struggled in all phases with its inconsistent play.
It looked like it would be more of the same as kicker Lucas Havrisik missed his first field goal, a 42-yard attempt. He would bounce back for his team, making his next three FGs, hitting from 25, 32, and 51 yards to help keep the team in the game.
Freshman punter Tyler Loop was outstanding for the Wildcats in helping his team flip the field. Loop averaged 45.3 yards a punt on three attempts. Last season Arizona averaged 38.8 yards a punt while sometimes putting its defense in challenging situations.
Rourke Freeburg! Welcome to the party. BIG stop for the Wildcats pic.twitter.com/jwIMiw0gDH
3. Defense Taking Positive Steps
Yes, Arizona gave up 34 points and allowed 173 yards rushing, so where is the improvement you ask? Well, first you have to look at Arizona’s first offensive drive where Gunnell threw a pick deep into Wildcats territory putting the defense in a horrible situation.
Besides that early touchdown, the defense shut USC down in the red zone for most of the game, forcing the Trojans to settle for three field goal attempts that would result in just six points.
The third-down defense was an issue for Arizona last season as opponents converted at an alarming 47 percent rate. Against USC, the Wildcats’ defense looked completely different, holding the Trojans to 5-for-13 on third-down attempts giving the offense a chance to put points on the board.
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com writer Troy Hutchison hails from Tucson and is a lifelong Arizona Wildcats follower. He has been involved in sports journalism over the last two years while taking communications courses at Pima Community College.