Arizona gets Hawaiian Punched in season opener
It appears Wildcat fans and the media have yet again been sold a false bill of goods by an Arizona football coaching staff. With closed practices, limited player availability, and controlled press conferences, the hard truth is we do not really know what we know until we see it on Saturdays.
This offseason, words like discipline, consistency, improvement, depth, and mechanics were in full effect during press conferences. On Saturday, these words resurfaced as punchlines to a cruel joke that has plagued Arizona football for too many years to count.
Despite committing six turnovers, Hawaii’s offense tallied 595 yards of offense and 45 points to edge visiting Arizona, 45-38. Imagine if the Rainbow Warriors only committed four turnovers or worse, just three.
Similar to last year’s team in away games, Arizona spotted its opponent a double-digit lead right out of the gate to trail 14-0. The Wildcats would even the score twice, but never once led. If this was the type of consistency second year coach Kevin Sumlin had in mind, Saturday evening in Honolulu will not be the last eye-popping, head-scratching moment of the season.
Khalil Tate did show signs of returning to his old self, passing for 361 yards and two touchdowns, while gaining 108 yards with his feet. However, Tate’s mechanics were still shaky.
The Wildcats (0-1, 0-0 Pac-12) opened the game with three straight, 3-and-out drives. Tate also threw two interceptions, the second coming in the Red Zone with just under eight minutes to play and Arizona only trailing 38-35.
Hawaii (1-0, 0-0 MWC) would take full advantage of the Tate miscue on a 30-yard scoring pass from Chevan Cordeiro to Cedric Byrd for a 10-point cushion. Byrd, indefensible all night, finished with 224 yards and four touchdowns on 14 catches.
In typical circa 2017 Tate fashion, the versatile quarterback would connect on a 57 yard pass and catch on Arizona’s next possession to give the Wildcats hope. However, ‘discipline’ would soon strike and nearly strike Arizona out.
Setting up for a 38-yard field goal try with 3:58 remaining, three points Arizona desperately needed, the special teams unit would commit not one, but three consecutive penalties to force Lucas Havrisik to then make a 53-yard try. Cool as ice, Havrisik did.
Hawaii’s offense would then do just enough on its ensuing possession before punting the ball away to the Arizona 16-yard line with 51 seconds remaining.
Again, Tate doing Tate-like things, helped Arizona advance the ball to the Hawaii 31-yard line with 10 seconds to play. Tate rolled to his right and saw an opportunity to use his legs to win the game.
They almost did.
Tate gained 30 yards on a scramble and dash. He needed 31.
The loss leaves Arizona with more questions than answers heading into its first bye week.
Star running back J.J. Taylor only had 14 touches for 67 yards. The Wildcats committed 10 penalties. The offense only had eight total yards at the end of the first quarter. Arizona was just 3-for-11 on third down conversions. Aside from Havrisik’s field goal, the special teams did not look special. Arizona’s defense, for some reason, went away from its newly-designed 4-man front to a 3-man front that produced zero pressure in the pocket. Ironically, the only time Arizona did hit Hawaii’s starting quarterback Cole McDonald in the backfield was on a roughing the passer penalty.
McDonald, who threw for 378 yards on 29-of-41 passing, made a little history by becoming the first FCS-1A signal caller since 2014 to throw for three touchdowns and three interceptions in a single half. McDonald would ultimately toss four picks on the night before being replaced by Cordeiro. The redshirt freshman stepped in nicely, completing 5-of-7 passes for 58 yards and the game-deciding touchdown.
If there is a positive takeaway, Arizona’s overhauled receiving unit looks promising. Converted quarterback Jamarye Joiner had four catches for 72 yards and a touchdown. Tayvian Cunningham had four grabs for 65 yards and Stanley Berryhill led all Wildcat receivers with 92 yards and a score. The unit also blocked well downfield, which helped spring Tate and Taylor to several long rushing gains.
Defensively, play-making cornerback Jace Whittaker accounted for two of Arizona’s interceptions.
Arizona next faces Northern Arizona on September 7. The late night tilt begins a three-game home stand where winning will be at a premium to erase the doubts raised after the loss to Hawaii.