Arizona’s 2019 football season described in two words
Arizona football’s 2019 season can be described in two words. The first word begins with an “S”. The second word is “Show”. Things were that bad for the Wildcats this year.
There’s a saying that goes, “In the end, you are what you are.”
That saying bore itself out in Arizona’s season finale against Arizona State in the annual Territorial Cup.
The Wildcats (4-8, 2-7 Pac-12) committed three turnovers and eight penalties in a 24-14 loss to the Sun Devils. Adding insult to injury, Arizona also went 0-for-2 on field goal tries, including a chip shot from under 30 yards. There were missed tackles, after the whistle penalties, inexplicable coaching decisions (read – attempting a Fourth-and-2 conversion, in a tie game, inside Arizona’s own 40-yard line), and the type of repeated gaffes that led to seven consecutive losses to conclude the season.
The season opened with a loss at Hawaii, a true sign of what was to come for the Wildcats. Arizona’s defense allowed 45 points on 595 yards of total offense. In Arizona’s second game of the season, the Wildcats gave up 28 second half points to Northern Arizona from the Big Sky Conference. It was an early sign of Arizona’s lack of depth as the reserves were torched by NAU on big play after big play after intermission.
Arizona would begin to show some signs of life by extending its winning streak to four games with victories over Texas Tech, UCLA, and Colorado. However, looking back on the year as a whole, Arizona’s four straight wins would ultimately come against teams with a combined record of just 17-30 overall and 11-24 in conference. Almost amazingly, despite beating UCLA and Colorado, both the Bruins and Buffs finished higher than the Wildcats in the Pac-12 South with four and three league wins, respectively.
Perhaps the saddest thing, despite finishing in dead last in not only the Pac-12 South Division, but the league overall, is four of Arizona’s seven conference losses came against teams with losing conference records (Stanford, Washington, Oregon State, and Arizona State). Further, two of those four losses came against teams with losing records, overall (Stanford and Oregon State). In short, only the losses to Utah, USC, and Oregon were against opponents with winning records in conference and overall. Still, the Wildcats lost to these three opponents by a combined scoring margin of 110-27. The games weren’t even that close!
Has Arizona Reached Rock Bottom?
It’s difficult to say right now. In fact, I’m not so sure the worst is yet to come. As we sit here today, Arizona’s incoming freshmen recruiting class ranks somewhere between 70 and 80, nationally, based on a variety of recruiting services. In the Pac-12, Arizona’s recruiting class ranks in the bottom three.
The Wildcats didn’t start the same offensive line in any of the final six games of the season. The injury-riddled offensive line needs some serious, play-right-away, bodies to add reliable depth. If the Wildcats strike out on the JUCO trail, next year’s team could actually be worse.
Kevin Sumlin’s Steady Decline
I saw this on Twitter during the Arizona-Arizona State game Saturday night and couldn’t believe it. However, after double checking the data, it’s true that Sumlin-coached teams have worsened since its pinnacle season at University of Houston in 2011. Here’s a breakdown of Sumlin’s coaching record from 2011 to 2019. Almost unbelievably, his teams have steadily declined year over year.
4-5 (T-3rd South)
2-7 (Last Place)
No Bigger Offseason than the One Upcoming
Arizona currently has 13 student athletes committed. The highest player ranking is 3 stars. By comparison, Arizona State already has four, 4-star players committed. Oregon, the conference’s bell weather program right now, has one, 5-star recruit and eight, 4-star recruits already committed. With a number of key contributors lost from the offense (notably Khalil Tate and JJ Taylor), an injury prone offensive line, an experienced, yet non-productive defense, and a special teams with zero kicking game, the Wildcat coaching staff needs to somehow rejuvenate the program on the recruiting trail over the next two months. That will be difficult coming off a last place finish, three straight losses to rival ASU, and zero bowl games in Sumlin’s first two years in Tucson.
First, however, Sumlin, who will be coming back for the 2020 season per Athletics Director Dave Heeke, must first make the best coaching hire of his career at defensive coordinator. If he doesn’t, there’s a strong chance Arizona’s best defensive players, particularly the younger ones, could fill up the Transfer Portal and really rip the guts out of the program.
Improvement is required in all Phases
Arizona must figure out a way to maintain a healthy offensive line. With the 6-foot-6, 225 Grant Gunnell expected to take over the helm next season, it’s predicted that Arizona will move away from the RPO offense in favor of a more traditional passing attack. Without a clean pocket to pass from, it will be an unmitigated disaster. The Wildcats do have young talent returning upfront. However, they need a full two-deep, at a minimum, to overcome the natural injuries that tend to occur over the course of a 12-game season. Jamarye Joiner, a converted quarterback, showed this season that he is capable of becoming a go-to wide receiver. Against ASU, Joiner had seven catches for 140 yards and two touchdowns. Overall, the receiving corps is young, but shows promise. Particularly, if Gunnell plays to the level of his 4-star high school ranking and starts to thrive in a Noel Mazzone offense that no longer has to accommodate the outgoing Khalil Tate.
There’s no need to word vomit Arizona’s defensive statistics. They’re terrible, and that’s all there is to know. Like in every other phase of the game, Arizona needs added depth on the defensive side of the football. Importantly, they need added size at all three levels. Critically important, however, is who is hired in as the defensive coordinator. It has to be the type of hire that not only serves to retain Arizona’s current student athletes playing defense, but also attracts future recruits in bunches. For a football program with such a storied history of playing bone-crushing defense, Sumlin needs to hire a coach that is able to bring that level of play back to Tucson. LSU made such a hire last offseason to reinvent there style of play on offense, and the Tigers, overnight, became one of the most dominant offensive teams in college football. Such a transformation is possible for Arizona, on the defensive side of the ball, with the right hire. An added benefit is the fan base, which has been outraged by the play of Wildcat defenses for years, will undoubtedly be reinvigorated.
Like the defense, for a school with a storied history of producing excellent placekickers and punters, what has been happening on special teams for the Wildcats is inexcusable. In my opinion, defense and special teams go hand-in-hand. Great defenses, in most cases, result in great special teams. Fix the defense and the special teams play should be a bi-product of success because these two phases of the game basically play off the other.
There’s a difference between playing hard and playing smart. No one is doubting the competitiveness of the players, or the desire to win by the coaching staff. However, playing hard will always be trumped by mental mistakes and physical errors. The number of penalties, turnovers, missed assignments, and general mental mistakes have been staggering in the first two seasons of the Sumlin Era. If Arizona can’t figure out a way to execute the basic things, then nothing else will matter.