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Saturday, November 25, 2017

Football

By the numbers: Wildcats offer unique look


The football team’s season debut will take place against the Arizona Wildcats on Sept. 9 in Tuscon, Arizona following the cancellation of the Cougars’ previously planned season opener against UTSA.

Arizona was plagued by injuries on offense, uncertainty at the QB position, and lack of size and experience on defense last season. The Wildcats were practically destined for the underwhelming and uncharacteristic 3-9 record they finished with in 2016.

Having regained many of their assets from a year ago, Arizona is presented a golden opportunity to bounce back in 2017. With depth and athleticism across multiple positions, you can expect the Wildcats to give the Cougars all they can handle Saturday night.

Run-based offense

Starting at QB is 6-foot-3 run-first junior Brandon Dawkins, who places No. 11 among QBs in rushing attempts per game. Last season, he trailed only to Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson in yards per rush, showing aptitude in executing the run-pass-option and keeping plays alive.

Through the air is a different story.

After watching film on Dawkins, it’s easy see his lack of accuracy and timidity in the passing game. Dawkins placed in the bottom quarter of QBs in passing attempts and completion percentage last year while managing to score more TDs with his feet (10) than by passing (8). Moreover, Dawkins finished ranked No. 82 among 128 NCAA QBs in interceptions per attempt.

Arguably the top two rushing threats, running backs Nick Wilson and J.J. Taylor have both recovered from season-ending injuries sustained early in 2016.

Wilson, a 5-foot-10 senior, posted 40 rushes for 250 yards and three scores in his first two games before sustaining the second injury of his college career. Taylor picked up the torch in spectacular fashion by running for 168 yards against Hawaii on Sept. 17, 2016.

A week later, Taylor just missed the century mark in yardage against an impressive Washington defense before suffering an ankle injury himself.

The pair combined for 131 yards and a score last week in their win against Northern Arizona.

Overall, the Wildcats used nine different ball carries en route to seven TDs and 506 yards — ranking them third in the nation in team rushing heading into Saturday’s matchup.

Losing experience, gaining size

Lack of depth and career reps is evident among Arizona’s wide receivers. Of the seven expected performers for 2017, only two have caught double-digit passes in their career; a likely attribution to the ground-and-pound offense run in Tucson.

A clear threat to defenses in terms of productivity is sophomore Shun Brown who managed 29 catches for three scores last season. Brown’s 18 yards per catch place him among the leaders of college receivers despite run-heavy play calling.

Of the returning receivers, only senior Cam Denson came close to matching Brown’s production with 15 catches for 242 yards and two TDs.

The Wildcats’ receiving corps suffered losses in recent graduates Nate Phillips and Trey Griffey, who combined for 56 catches, 800 yards and four TDs last season. Replacing them will be 6-foot-6 senior Shaw Poindexter and 6-foot-4 transfer Zach Benjamin who add height and experience to the position group.

Regardless, just seven combined receptions last weekend suggest that Rich Rodriguez’s offense will continue to keep the ball on the ground against the Cougars.

Defensive notes

The defensive line infamously lacked in size last year but returns most of its players from 2016. The team added a 6-foot-3 310-pound body in Sione Taufahema, so the line is both bigger and more experienced than in the Wildcats’ 3-9 season of a year ago.

Losing crucial pieces in Paul Magloire Jr. and Michael Barton, who had led the team in total tackles and tackles for loss respectively, could prove to be troublesome. Moreover, returning senior defensive linemen Deandre Miller and Parker Zeller, who also accounted for three sacks in just six games, will play an important role in limiting the Cougars’ offensive attack.

Arizona’s secondary brings back five of six players who tallied interceptions in 2016, with cornerbacks Jace Wittaker and Dan Cruikshank combining for three picks and 18 passes defended. Alongside junior safety Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles, this group is bound to give opposing quarterbacks and receivers fits on offense.

Flannigan-Fowles’ season is already off to a hot start by way of making two interceptions last weekend against Northern Arizona.

Team performance in 2016

While Arizona’s offense thrived in the running game — ranking No. 20 in rushing yardage — it showed a penchant for limiting turnovers with just two per game, placing it in the bottom quarter of NCAA teams in the category. It also ranked in the bottom 20 percent in offensive plays per game, exhausting their own defense by constantly being on the field.

Said defense had a bad year by all statistical parameters, finishing outside top-100 in points, yards, penalties and turnovers forced. The worst aspects include their next-to-last national ranking in both opponent completion percentage at 66 percent and TD’s per game with three. Look no further than the fact the defense was on the field for an average of 77 plays.

Overall, the Wildcats were 3-4 at home in 2016 with all four losses coming against 10-or-more win teams.

Even though Arizona was derailed by injuries throughout 2016, playing at home appeared to give them a clear advantage overall. The fact that No. 9 ranked Washington needed overtime to outlast Arizona in Tucson last season speaks volumes.

All in all, Houston will have their hands full Saturday night. The Cougars play a fully-loaded team eager to avenge their woeful season of a year ago, in front of their home crowd.

Kick-off is scheduled for 9:30 p.m. on Sept. 9.

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