It’s no secret that head coach Kevin Sumlin’s tenure at Arizona has been nothing short of disappointing. In his debut season, the Wildcats went 5-7 after two shocking losses to BYU and Houston in a season where quarterback Khalil Tate was the presumed front-runner to lead the Heisman race. In fact, the pairing of Sumlin (who coached the spirited if not sometimes volatile Johnny Manziel during his tenure at Texas A&M) and Tate seemed like a match made in heaven when the hiring was first announced, but on the heels of two back-to-back disappointing seasons, the excitement around Tate has more or less dissipated as his regression continues. Tate, however, is far from the biggest issue plaguing the Wildcats in the Sumlin era. It’s the defense.
Dating back to last season, Sumlin’s defenses have given up an average of 34.59 point per game, with 2019’s unit alone giving up an average of 37 points. This includes a 69-28 curb stomping by Washington State in week 11 of the 2018 season, and a 56-38 loss to the surging Oregon State Beavers just three weeks ago. Even their dominating wins against lesser opponents are riddled with points. Take 62-31 victory over Southern Utah in 2018 (Sumlin’s first win with the Wildcats), or the 65-41 win against Northern Arizona in the Wildcat’s second game of the season as just two of many examples. No matter how well the offense performs, the defense seemingly can’t keep opposing teams out of the red zone.
Despite being outscored by opponents 302-370 in 2019, there have been some bright spots for the Wildcats defense, starting with junior linebacker, Colin Schooler. The 6’1”, 229 lb. brother of former Oregon wide receiver and current transfer portal free agent, Brenden Schooler has accounted for a team high 78 total tackles, with 51 of those being unassisted efforts, with 7.5 tackles for loss. The younger Schooler lacks the speed of his brother but is a legitimate threat in the middle of the field with an ability to plug holes on run defense or drop back to display is excellent pass protection, making him a key element to whatever success the Wildcats can muster on the defensive side of the ball. Schooler is joined by fellow junior Tony Fields II (6’1” 220 lbs) in the linebacking unit, who himself has accounted for 48 solo tackles, four TFL’s, 1.5 sacks and one interception in 2019.
While the Arizona linebacking unit is stout, it’s the secondary that poses the greatest risk to Utah. Headlined by corners Jace Whittaker (5’11”, 185 lbs.) and Lorenzo Burns (5’11”, 175 lbs), the talented pair have combined for six interceptions, and 12 pass deflections in 2019, making them a dangerous duo, even for an offense that has protected the ball as well as Utah has this season.
Considering Arizona’s five game losing streak has put a bowl game opportunity in jeopardy for the second straight season, the Wildcat’s need to win out in their final two games in order to clinch a post-season bid. With no room for error, Utah can’t afford to overlook a team desperate to get things back on track in the closing weeks.