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Tate, Wildcats host Southern Utah desperate for win

Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate (14) drops back to pass during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Houston, Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018, in Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)

Kevin Sumlin’s tenure at Arizona couldn’t have started much worse.

The Wildcats are now 0-2 with losses to BYU and Houston, and not much went well in either of the defeats. This marks the first time since 1981 that the Wildcats started the season 0-2.

The offensive line is depleted and the defense has played like it did last year: poorly. But perhaps Arizona’s biggest disappointment so far is Khalil Tate, who came into the year expected to be a Heisman candidate.

Tate has only completed 51.9 percent of his passes, and in the Week 2 loss, Tate tweaked his ankle in the first quarter. This forced Arizona to call fewer running plays with Tate.

This week, Arizona hosts a less prominent opponent Saturday in Southern Utah. Most recently, the Thunderbirds lost to Oregon State by a score of 48-25 in Week 2.

Essential Info

What: Arizona vs. Southern Utah

When: 8 p.m.

TV: Pac-12 Networks

Storylines to follow

Will the Arizona line improve?

In both of the first two games, Arizona and Tate has struggled to get any protection due to the inexperienced, beaten-up offensive line.

But this week, the unit returns tackle Layth Friekh from a two-game suspension, so Tate may have a bit more time to make plays. Center Nathan Eldridge is still out with injury, and the line will not be at full strength until he returns.

Because of the line’s youth, this game against an FCS opponent could be one that builds chemistry among the unit.

“It’s a work in progress,” Sumlin said at his weekly press conference. “I think getting Layth (Friekh) back this week will help us.”

How many points will the Wildcat defense allow?

One thing that has carried over from last year is Arizona’s defensive woes. Tackling and man coverage are two things that stood out as major problems in Arizona’s losses to BYU and Houston.

The Wildcats are averaging 36.5 points allowed per game, which is tied for 111th in the FBS. Last week against Houston, the Cougars scored 45 points and recorded 551 total yards of offense.

While the Thunderbirds are 0-2, they haven’t failed to put up points in their losses. In Week 1, SUU scored 30 in the loss to North Alabama, and last week, the Thunderbirds scored 25 points against Oregon State.

How will Sumlin run the offense?

Sumlin is under heat from Arizona fans regarding how he’s controlled the offense, but with an easier opponent in Week 3, he may call for more designed QB runs, if Tate is healthy. Tate has rushed for only 22 yards this year, a huge drop off from last year when he ran for 1,411 yards in just 10 starts, in part because of his ankle injury.

With Friekh back on the line, Tate may have slightly more time to run, a luxury he didn’t have against BYU or Houston.

When will Arizona fans lose patience?

Needless to say, Sumlin hasn’t gotten off to the start he would’ve liked to in Tucson, but luckily for him, there are still 10 games to regroup.

The next two games, Southern Utah and Oregon State, could be a good cushion and time for improvement before the Wildcats get into the thick of the Pac-12 schedule. But if anything goes wrong in either game, Arizona fans may be calling for Sumlin’s head.

With the Wildcats’ expectations going into the season, a 1-3 start could be considered inexcusable and disastrous.

Key Wildcats

QB Khalil Tate

He could be called a key piece every week, but this week in particular, Tate needs to have a big game to prove that he’s still a big-time player. Sure, Tate threw for 341 yards in the loss to Houston, but that was partly because of a 46-yard garbage-time touchdown late in the fourth quarter and his 45 pass attempts.

Southern Utah struggled to defend the run against Oregon State, allowing the Beavers to combine for 360 yards on the ground. With this, expect more designed runs for Tate if his ankle isn’t an issue.

“The mobility of Khalil is his strength,” Sumlin said. “What we want to do, what we try to do, is play to our players’ strength, as we learn this team.”

WR Shawn Poindexter

Senior receiver Shawn Poindexter broke out in the loss to Houston, posting a career-high 134 yards on seven receptions. Poindexter’s longest reception of the game was for 30 yards on a rollout play, which showed he may be an explosive target for Tate going forward.

In his previous two seasons, Poindexter combined for less than 400 receiving yards, and he found the end zone for the first time in last year’s Foster Farms Bowl. Look for Poindexter as a hidden gem in the Arizona offense going forward.

Key Thunderbirds

QB Chris Helbig

Despite losing by double digits, quarterback Chris Helbig played well against Oregon State. The junior threw for 341 yards and two touchdowns in the loss, completing 31 of his 47 passes.

Arizona’s defensive backs got burned consistently against Houston, and the Thunderbirds can keep it close if Helbig plays as well as he did against OSU.

LB Chinedu Ahanonu

To start the season, the Thunderbirds have struggled defensively. Averaging 41 points allowed per game, SUU will need to rally around its experienced players like linebacker Chinedu Ahanonu to stop Arizona’s offense, which is the best unit the Thunderbird defense has faced.

Against Oregon State, Ahanonu recorded 10 tackles, eight of which were solo. Along with safety Kyle Hanneman and cornerback Jalen Russell, Ahanonu is one of the only veterans on the defense, and the three of them will need to step up against Arizona.


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