Bryant Conger of 12 PAC RADIO, a weekly podcast covering the conference of champions, was kind enough to chat about the Wildcat roster with us. He may cover the PAC-12 in its entirety, but he’s also a Wildcat fan, and he’ll be the first to tell you that Arizona may be in for a rough one at Autzen.
The most intriguing aspect of Arizona’s season is the possibility of a starting quarterback change from senior #14 QB Tate to freshman #17 QB Gunnell. The latter played substantial garbage-time drives in their blowout of NAU and then a sizable amount in losses to the Huskies and Trojans, as well as the entire game against UCLA due to an injury to Tate. I didn’t chart any of those reps, but I did see Gunnell in three meaningful drives against Stanford two weeks ago as it appeared they were rotating him in and out with Tate; and while he didn’t start against Oregon St, he did get the majority of snaps including all of the final five drives.
Despite a number of predictable freshman flaws in Gunnell’s game, Tate has been having such a poor season that I think it would be irrational for Coach Sumlin not to go with Gunnell’s comparatively stronger play and promise for the future, and so I expect Gunnell to start against Oregon tomorrow. At any rate, I think fans are pretty familiar with Tate’s strengths and weaknesses by now and film study of him would be less useful to the reader than focusing on the lesser known Gunnell, so all passing plays we’ll look at in this article are with him under center.
Overall, Arizona’s passing offense over last the five games prior to garbage time has been perfectly even - 70 successful dropbacks vs 70 failed ones, given the down and distance. I have about three times as many snaps by Tate than Gunnell, so take their splits with a grain of salt, but Gunnell appears to be substantially more efficient over the fairly small sample I have from him. That’s not because he’s any more effective passing out of the pocket (actually, Tate looks to be slightly better at that), but instead it’s entirely due to Gunnell being vastly better than Tate when he breaks the pocket.
The subjective impression I get from the short time I’ve watched Gunnell is that he trusts his ability to improvise out of the pocket much more than he does the offensive line to protect him inside of it and executing the play as called … and it’s entirely possible that he’s right. Here’s a sample of his capabilities:
(Reminder - you can right-click or long-press any of these videos to play them at ¼ or ½ speed)
- :00 - Good read of the progressions here, then showing patience as the backer clears out and fitting the ball nicely into a small window to #9 WR J. Johnson.
- :17 - Here’s what Arizona’s coaches are doubtlessly hoping to see more of - plenty of time to survey the field and no temptation to leave the pocket means Gunnell can identify the quarters coverage and locate #86 WR Berryhill beating the DB on this in-breaking route for a big gain.
- :26 - No pressure here, just a lot of open green grass. He might not have Tate’s speed but this is a great efficiency scramble and we can see from the high angle how the defense has left open the entire field to take advantage of.
- :36 - The backer crashes past backup #53 RG Jacobs and flushes Gunnel quickly, and he’s got to get around #72 RT Burrola who’s giving a lot of ground. Watch how he keeps his eyes downfield the entire play and makes an impressive throw on the move even knowing he’s about to take a hard hit.
The biggest issue Gunnell faces is that he’s not expecting much offensive line protection. The injuries to Arizona’s o-line are dire -- I saw 10 different linemen get extensive playing time over these five games -- but that’s just compounding the existing problems. To wit: these are not the most highly recruited players, the new OL Coach DeVan has had to experiment with guys in different positions even before the injuries, and at a couple spots (most notably RT) they don’t seem to trust one guy or another to play a complete game.
The best linemen I charted are #78 LT Laie and #50 C McCauley, who had played every snap until they suffered unknown injuries against OSU. We haven’t gotten any injury information at all about who might be available tomorrow (Bryant told a funny story about it on the podcast) so I’m not sure what we’ll get there, but regardless of who’s playing I expect to see lots of plays out of the pocket - I tallied more than 40% of all dropbacks over these five games ending in a sack, a scramble, or a throwaway … half of that would still be a bad number. It seems clear from the film we have that concerns about the line protection have Gunnell kind of spooked, and he’s made some questionable decisions because of that. Some examples:
- :00 - There’s no real pressure here within the first three seconds, but Gunnell is starting to panic even before #74 RT Fears gives up his man. He doesn’t see the dumpoff to #18 WR Peterson breaking open in front of him, or #11 WR Cunningham with a big cushion on the bottom of the screen, or even the giant rightside A-gap for him to scramble through.
- :17 - The four-man rush gets past Burrola, Laie, and #66 LG Congel, but I think a more seasoned QB steps up and makes the quick throw to #2 WR Curry or the lob to #21 RB Taylor instead of scrambling into this sack.
- :30 - The defense shows blitz but backs out of it, leaving four linemen blocking two rushers because of early over-commitment from the left side of the line, and the backer on an unconventional loop stunt going unblocked. Gunnell has the arm to hit #1 WR Dixon who’s beaten single coverage on the out-breaking route on the top of the screen, but he doesn’t see him as he’s flushed and instead just drops it off to Curry on the crosser who’s immediately tackled to end the drive.
- :39 - This is an RPO with the read being the fieldside backer. He moves out over the man in motion leaving only five in the box, so Gunnell should have handed the ball off to #23 RB Brightwell. When he pulls the ball instead, he quickly finds that the DB has taken away the screen and the backer has closed off the throwing lane, because there’s four defenders vs two potential blockers on that side. Scrambling back across the formation then puts him in a lot of injury risk for no real upside given the run blocking, and he should have cut his losses and thrown the ball away before the linemen get too far downfield.
The rushing offense is much more efficient - 75 successes vs 59 failures. Taylor remains the primary back, but it’s a loaded room with Brightwell, #20 B. Smith, #6 RB Wiley, and #33 RB Tilford (the last being a bigger short-yardage back). I saw a lot of what we’ve gotten accustomed to from Arizona’s backs in recent years - quick, shifty guys who are constantly looking for a cutback lane and are tougher to bring down than they look. Some examples:
- :00 - This play is pretty well blocked, especially the pull by McCauley to get the playside backer. But what turns it from a 3-yard run to a 9-yard one is that impressive acceleration as Taylor turns the corner to beat the other backer. Even in slow motion the burst when he puts his foot in the ground is dramatic.
- :06 - Here’s a good offensive adjustment. The defense had been trying to confuse the zone read by sending two backers off the edge, the first would go after the back inside to cause the QB to pull the ball, and the second would stay outside to bring him down. But that leaves five in the box vs five linemen, so Arizona calls the bluff and runs free out the other side - something that wouldn’t be possible if Brightwell couldn’t out-accelerate the unblocked backer chasing him.
- :18 - The defense has this pin & pull read the whole way (#81 TE Wolma is in, after all), but this is just one of many times that Taylor makes something out of nothing.
- :34 - Here’s the mixed blessing of Taylor’s constant attempts to shift lanes - this should have been a tackle for loss but he breaks free and gets positive yardage, but go back and look at the high camera angle at the snap - had kept going outside instead of cutting inside there’s nobody between him and the endzone.
There are a couple of surprises in this year’s running attack. First, only about a third of runs are going outside - that’s a lot more inside rushing than I was seeing last year. Second, the presence of Wolma in the formation is a dead giveaway as to the playcall: with 10- or 20-personnel plays they rush about a third of the time, in 11-personnel it’s more than double that rate; my tally sheet from last year’s film study doesn’t have nearly as stark a contrast.
The third surprise is that explosive rushes are way down from last year. While it’s a pretty efficient rushing offense by their per-play success rate and solid if unspectacular 4.11 yards per designed run by the running backs on my tally sheet, there’s very little in the way of chunk yardage or explosive plays - I saw only 11% of all such runs getting 10 or more yards, and none with over 20. We know these backs are physically capable of breaking big runs from last year’s performances, they just haven’t been happening lately.
Failed rushes are mostly a result of how shaky the offensive line has been, but also some bad reads by the QBs and an overabundance of cuts by the backs. Some examples:
- :00 - Even a defense with five in the box and that’s not ready for the snap effectively stones the line. I tallied the line failing to generate any real push on about 40% of all runs.
- :07 - The QB makes the correct read by handing off, but the left side of the line isn’t controlling the defense at all and the original A-gap lane is cut off. Taylor should have kept going into the playside B-gap which is wide open, plus the center and WR are in position to block downfield for that option. Instead Taylor cuts backside, which is exactly where the unblocked man -- whom the whole play is designed to neutralize! -- is waiting for him. This is one of a dozen such plays on my tally sheet.
- :13 - Just the wrong read by Gunnell -- something I saw him do on about 12% of his snaps with read components -- to hand off with the OLB crashing on the back. He should have kept the ball and run it outside himself since the blockers are in position, or if the safety takes a good angle, threw the RPO to the sweep-screen man Cunningham - note him turning his head to look for the ball.
This is the #115 defense in SP+, and they’ve given up 41 or more points in each of their last four games. In their most recent game they had fired former DC Yates and LB coach Rushing, and had promoted defensive analyst and former Wildcat legend Chuck Cecil to DC (he was a thrill to watch as a safety in Dick Tomey’s first season in Tucson - nine INTs on the year as a walk-on!).
The final straw for Yates was apparently the poor performance against Stanford - that game graded out with substantially worse per-play effectiveness for the Wildcats’ defense than their previous three games. However, I didn’t see any real structural changes DC Cecil implemented for their next game, and they played equally poorly on my tally sheet.
The pass defense came out one play above water in per-play effectiveness as I charted it, 66 successful defenses of opponent dropbacks vs 65 failures. But that efficiency is betrayed by awful explosive pass defense, giving up 20+ yard passing plays about 15% of the time and surrendering an average of 8.09 yards per pass attempt that I charted.
The main culprits are a pass rush that almost never gets pressure without blitzing, and DBs who, although they do run to the ball well on short passes, tend to get beat a lot in intermediate and deep coverage. Some examples:
- :00 - This zone coverage is simply way too soft - they have five defenders against two receiving options and still give up 15 yards. #1 LB Fields gets pulled over to the short route even though he’s covered and abandons the underneath throwing lane, while #6 DB S. Young is playing way too far off even though there’s another safety over him.
- :12 - The coverage holds up pretty well at first, but I count more than four Mississippis of completely clean pocket time for the QB to watch the field, and eventually a receiver breaks free.
- :37 - The man coverage for the short routes is pretty good, but #2 CB Burns gets beat on the intermediate route. Then there are some issues tackling - on about a quarter of all passing plays I saw the Wildcats give up 10+ additional yards after the catch.
There are two factors that raise Arizona’s pass defense effectiveness. First, four of their last five opponents I’ve written previews of, and I noted in each of those articles that they make things easy on pass defenses by failing to stretch the field with multiple credible receiving threats - Arizona took advantage of that with bracket coverage. Second, they get a high rate of payoff with their high-risk, high-reward six-man blitzes, particularly double A-gap blitzes where they send both Fields and #7 LB Schooler, because those guys play like raving madmen when they get into the backfield. Some examples:
- :00 - The blitz works here, as the QB who’s about to get crunched by three Wildcats throws an off-target ball that’s easy for Young to break-up in man.
- :20 - Easy choice for the single-high #17 S Whittaker on which receiver to take since there’s only one going more than 5 yards deep; he and #31 S Cooper combine on a PBU of an otherwise extremely difficult-to-defend receiver.
- :32 - Blitzes don’t get simpler than this, send both inside backers into the A-gaps. Schooler shoves back the center and leaps up to deter the pass, while Fields mows down the RB in pass-pro and fells the QB.
Like every conference opponent Oregon has faced to date this season, Arizona’s rush defense is appalling. At only 54 successful rush defenses vs 95 failures, Arizona somehow beat even the previous record holder Wazzu with only a 36.24% success rate (the Cougs were 36.36%, a real photo finish). They surrendered a 5.5 yards per carry average on designed rushes I observed, and gave up 10 rushing touchdowns and 21 runs of 10 yards or longer prior to garbage time in the last five games.
Here’s a representative sample:
- :00 - Both Schooler and #8 LB Pandy take the wrong gaps here, leaving the middle of the field open, and Young is slow to come down into it.
- :14 - Arizona’s front seven plays pretty aggressively, but disciplined offenses take advantage of it. Here #99 DT Tapusoa and #86 DE Belknap get into the backfield, and Schooler beats the guard getting up to the second level, but all three of them are coming so hot that they run themselves out of the play.
- :21 - Arizona is sure this is going to be a run and have loaded the box with nine men. But it doesn’t matter since the line is completely reset and the back runs over three guys.
- :36 - Longtime readers will recall the first clip of my 2018 Civil War review was of Oregon’s offensive line shoving OSU’s four yards downfield right off the snap, giving the running back very little to do. Here the Beavs have found an opponent to whom they can do the same.