Opponent Offense Preview: Arizona Wildcats

Khalil Tate is healthy and J.J. Taylor is still a Wildcat. This should be fun.

Key Stats

Points per game: 37.2

Yards per play: 6.5

Pass/run ration: 51%/49%

Red zone TD %: 72%

Team yards per rush: 5.7 (#14 nationally)

Offensive Philosophy

The Arizona Wildcats play college football. So what do they run? The college football offense! I talk a lot about what I consider the “college football offense” because so many of them are similar these days and many teams run variations of the same concepts. There are obvious differences, but the spread/zone read/RPO/quick pass game out of the shotgun is what many teams run in 2019. OC Noel Mazzone is particularly well known for this and most especially for simplifying things for his players, the QB first and foremost.


Arizona OC Noel Mazzone

Mazzone is well versed in Pac-12 football having had prior stops at UCLA, Arizona State, and Oregon State back in 2002. He was with Head Coach Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M as well just before his stint in Tuscon. Currently at Arizona, he’s done a nice job putting together an offense that averaged 31 points a game last year and is up to 37 this year. The biggest difference in 2019 is the trust developing between star QB Khalil Tate, and Mazzone. They are communicating better and Tate is both playing within the confines of the offense while also improvising when needed. Last year it was clear the coaches put some reigns on Tate and this year he’s playing much more free.

He’s always in the shotgun, and the run game gets creative from that set. They run from both the pistol and zone read and with plenty of play action leading to quick throws and WR screens. But, they aren’t afraid to just attack the perimeter as Khalil Tate will throw over the middle plenty. They also spread the ball around quite a bit, especially at receiver – six players have caught at least one touchdown, while three others have grabbed at least two. Eight players have double digit catches, including two running backs. Same with the run game – despite the presence of the dynamic J.J. Taylor, fellow running backs Gary Brightwell and Darrius Smith all get meaningful touches. While the run game is the strength of the offense, they did manage to beat UCLA and Colorado while only gaining 99 and 83 yards rushing, respectively. They squeaked by UCLA with back up QB Grant Gunnell, but Tate was the hero and dominated Colorado through the air.

Key Players

QB Khalil Tate1,088 yards, 67% completion, 9 TD/5 INT, 36 rush attempts for 261 yards

Tate has had a bit of a resurgence this year after looking at times like a shadow of his former self last season. He’s more comfortable at both running the offense and knowing when to do uber-athletic Khalil Tate things – his numbers this year highlight that. He’s been dangerous both in the air and on ground, and the coaches have no problem putting the game on his arm – he had 41 pass attempts and a career high 404 yards at Colorado last week. Before that game, Arizona was 1-8 when Tate attempted more than 30 passes. The coaches are beginning to understand his strengths more and better game plan around them. The offense is tailored to him and he isn’t asked to make many throws into tight windows.

He’s an incredibly dangerous and swift runner, while also possessing nice touch and accuracy on his passes. He’s probably thrown too many interceptions this year, some of them very poor throws, but overall he’s back to being one of the best players in college football. He’s also only been sacked four times all season.

RB Gary Brightwell44 rushes, 286 yards, 4 TD

Brightwell has really come on this season and had the second longest run in Arizona history with his 94 yarder against the mighty Northern Arizona Lumberjacks. At 6-1 and 210 pounds, the Rich Rod holdover is a strong one cut runner who plants his foot in the ground and heads upfield. His has a physical running style similar to Richard Newton.

WR Tayvian Cunningham20 receptions, 233 yards, 2 TD

The diminutive Cunningham leads the team in yards and is second in touchdowns. Tate spreads the wealth among the receivers and the 5-7 JC transfer has been a nice veteran presence with his hands and speed. Arizona lost a ton of experienced receivers last year and Cunningham has helped lessen the drop off.

WR Brian Casteel – 21 receptions, 180 yards, 1 TD

Casteel is the closest thing to a go-to guy in this Wildcat receiver corps, despite not really having a true go-to. However, he is the only receiver to start every game for Arizona and leads the team in catches. He doesn’t provide a ton of huge explosion plays but was reliable in last week’s win against Colorado with 7 catches for 74 yards and a TD.

X-Factor

Is it truly an x-factor if it’s obvious? Because it’s got to be Khalil Tate’s legs. He’s so fast and sees lanes so well that he can burn teams for huge gains if the space is there. Washington hasn’t proved yet this year it can contain mobility at the QB position and the linebacker corps will be stressed mightily by this Arizona attack. A bonus x-factor: we don’t know which WR will have a big game. It’s almost easier if there is one clear guy to shut down. Everyone will require equal attention, though the defense will need to keep an extra eye on Cunningham because of his speed. It will be too easy for Tate to spread the ball around and keep the Huskies guessing if they aren’t winning one-on-one battles against their receivers.

Conclusion

Mazzone will probably attack Washington’s linebackers with Tate’s legs and quick passes. If they sense Washington’s safeties cheating up, they will go for the deep ball against a secondary that has been vulnerable at times. Colorado played a ton of zone coverage against the Cats and Tate was able to dissect it in a variety of ways. The game plan and play calling put a lot of stress on the safeties with the route combinations the receivers were running. The Huskies will probably start in man but I imagine they will move towards more zone play as the game wears on and Tate scrambles a few times. Man coverage can leave a ton of room for QBs to scramble if nothing is open downfield. Putting a spy on him (Wellington probably) then leaves one less man defender downfield – though the Huskies might take their chances against a WR corp whose strength is in depth and not necessarily elite production at the top. One thing is for sure, the Husky defensive line needs to have a bounce back game to stop the run, while the linebackers have to clean up and make tackles against the physical Brightwell and quick Taylor. Before Taylor was injured in 2016’s contest, it looked like he was going to lead the Cats to victory in Tuscon. Hopefully it won’t require an Arizona player getting injured for the Huskies to win on Saturday night.

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Author:

Jeff Gorman