Arizona-Southern Utah: 10 storylines

This week's topics: Khalil Tate. big plays, attendance, effort

Arizona returns home Saturday night to play Southern Utah of the Football Championship Subdivision.

The Thunderbirds -- aren't you glad they're not another Cougars? -- are 0-2, having lost 34-30 at home to North Alabama and 48-25 at Oregon State.

Here are 10 storylines for Saturday night:

1. Khalil Tate: Yeah. Let's start here again. The first question is the health of his left ankle, injured to some extent on the first series against Houston last week.

Coach Kevin Sumlin said the injury entirely changed the game plan of having Tate run more than he did in the opener, but Tate stayed in the game until the final possession and was moving around better in the second half and said afterward it wasn't a big deal.

But with no injury updates from this Arizona coaching staff, I guess we'll know when we know about Tate's status.

Figure he plays, but will he and offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone finally get somewhere on the same page in regard to play-calling and the execution of those calls?

2.Explosive plays: Sports Illustrated took a deep dive into Arizona's offensive woes so far this season, noting that Tate is 1-for-14 when throwing the ball more than 20 yards past the line of scrimmage. For the record, I have re-watched both games and have it as 1-for-16 with an interception in those situations, the only completion being a 30-yard gain to Shawn Poindexter early in the Houston game.

(That's Poindexter in the video above, talking about the offense)

Against Houston, Tate was better, completing some passes about 15 to 20-yard down field, but it was still not enough. The Cats are 80th in the country in gains of 20-plus yards, with eight.

"We have to generate more explosive plays," Sumlin said. "We've got to get bigger chunks of yardage at certain times. That speaks to scheme and what we can do. Those explosive things are a combination of things but it's something we're working on right now."

3. Arizona has to be better on the lines. We're talking offensive, defensive and beer. Heard stories of waits of up to 45 minutes for a brew at the season-opener, although maybe standing in line this week won't be as much of a concern, because ...

4.Attendance. At this point, Arizona was hoping -- expecting -- a 2-0 start with the team being on the fringe of the Top 25 with Tate being among the Heisman favorites. With a sour 0-2 start instead, athletic director Dave Heeke felt it necessary to address the fans in his Wildcat Wednesday newsletter.

He wrote: "Football coaching transitions are always difficult as players and coaches learn new systems and measure potential strengths and opportunities. However, I encourage all of our fans to believe in the process and stay the course with this program."

The fans will vote with the money. Will they show up on a late Saturday night for a bad opponent?

Keep in mind that announced attendance figures are tickets sold, not butts in the seats.

Also keep in mind: UA had an announced crowd of 36,651 for last season's home game against Utah, although that was on a Friday night.

Anything below 40,000 is rare. Other than the Utah game, the last time it happened was a meaningless game against Louisiana to end the 2011 season (38,819). Another low-water mark: 36,309 in Week 2 of the 1997 season against Alabama-Birmingham.

5. Darrius "Bam" Smith: When the running back from Houston entered the game in the second half last week in his hometown, it was possible that the coaching staff was just throwing him a bone in front of family and friends.

But Smith looked good, rushing 11 times for 51 yards and a touchdown.

"We found another running back," Sumlin said. "He has great vision. He's a pretty good start-stop guy and he runs hard. ... It looks like he's going to help us in the rotation with J.J. and Gary."

J.J. Taylor and Gary Brightwell remain the top two backs, but Smith might have moved ahead of converted DB Anthony Mariscal, who had moved ahead of former four-star recruit Nathan Tilford.

Considering Southern Utah gave up 360 rushing yards to Oregon State last week, there better be plenty of opportunities for at least three running backs on Saturday night.

6. A Thunderbird to know. Quarterback Chris Helbig has completed 59 of 86 passes for 656 yards, with four touchdowns and no interceptions, through two games. And the junior college transfer must be a heck of a runner, considering he has rushed for 46 yards more than Tate this season.

(Ahem, Helbig has 68 rushing yards.)

7. Repeat storyline from Week 2: Arizona needs safety Scottie Young Jr. (one-game suspension, injury?) and cornerback Jace Whittaker (injury) to return and play like two of the team's best defensive backs, which they are.

8. Make some plays, any plays. The Arizona defense is still the Arizona defense, which is not a good way to be. Projections for success for the Wildcats this season included a young defense striving to be mediocre statistically. That would have been a significant jump.

But through two games, Arizona has zero takeaways, zero sacks.

"Schematically, we have to generate more negative yardage plays," Sumlin said. "That's just the bottom line."

9. A little effort would be nice. This is rather subjective and all, but Arizona hasn't looked like the feisty, high-motor team it needs to be.

There's not much to be accomplished from a game against Southern Utah -- a loss is a disaster; a win is to be expected -- so about the best the Cats can do is to come away from the game with a little boost in confidence heading into Pac-12 play,. having an example of how to be the harder-playing team.

10. Who wins. With a new-look offensive line -- hey, there's another storyline! -- the Wildcats need to get physical. Do it. Arizona 41, Southern Utah 17.


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