UA football’s new weapon vs. Hawaii: lotsa takeaways

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                </div>  The hire of defensive coordinator Marcel Yates in the off-season is looking like a stroke of brilliance.  Without Yates on board this season, the University of Arizona football team […]<!-- AddThis Sharing Buttons below -->
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The hire of defensive coordinator Marcel Yates in the off-season is looking like a stroke of brilliance.  Without Yates on board this season, the University of Arizona football team would likely be off to a disastrous 0-2 start.

After losing the opener to BYU, the Wildcats were able to rally from an 18-point deficit to edge out Grambling State last week for a 31-21 victory.  They really needed the 21 points the defense provided to pull out the victory.

Since the Cats were favored to win that game by half a dozen touchdowns, not only would it have put them in a big hole to start the season, but it would have been one of the most embarrassing losses during Rich Rodriguez‘s four-plus seasons in charge of the program.  Grambling is an FCS team.

After trailing 21-3 at halftime, the Arizona defense held Grambling scoreless in the second half, while the offense put 28 points on the board.  It was the first time since a game against California in 2014 that the Cats trailed by double digits at the half.

That huge turnaround was largely due to the six turnovers the defense contributed to the win, three on interceptions and three fumble recoveries.  The Cats actually forced five fumbles, converting three to possessions.

It should come as no surprise to anyone who is familiar with the Boise State defense in recent years.  Yates was the defensive coordinator there the last two years when the Broncos used an attacking defense to finish each of the last two seasons among the top 10 teams in the nation in forced turnovers.

That reputation for creating takeaways is what Rodriguez was looking for.  Last season, his team finished 96th in the nation in that category, posting just 16 takeaways for the full season, the worst season total since taking over.

Yates is changing the mental approach to that aspect of the game, working on it consistently at practice and punishing his defensive unit after any game that fails to notch at least three takeaways.

Arizona plays Hawaii tonight in a game that should provide a good indicator as to whether that mindset has actually set in.  In the opener with BYU there were no turnovers, so last week’s success was a big step forward.

It will be interesting to see who steps forward to make the defensive plays against the Rainbow Warriors.  Last week, UofA redshirt junior Parker Zellers had a big night with two sacks and two forced turnovers, while Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles made one of the interceptions and led the team in tackles with nine.

Jarvis McCall and Jace Whittaker accounted for the other two interceptions and Cody Ippolito recovered two fumbles as the Wildcats converted the six takeaways to 21 points to fuel the comeback.

Both teams played with back-up quarterbacks, so evaluating the offense for each was difficult.  Grambling starter DeVante Kincade left the game late in the first half with an injury, and Brandon Dawkins was filling in for Arizona’s injured starting third-year QB, Anu Solomon.

Dawkins showed he was ready to step in.  The redshirt sophomore was 15-of-29 for 223 yards passing and also ran for another 97 yards on 16 carries.  His primary receivers on the night turned out to be Samajie Grant (5 catches for 95 yards) and Trey Griffey (4-for-74).

And Nick Wilson collected his 100 yards rushing again.  The junior running back ran for 138 yards against BYU and then finished with 116 against Grambling.  He has 27 career touchdowns already, which means he needs just one more to move into third place on the UofA all-time list.

If Arizona is beginning to get this season back on track, we’ll likely know it by the time the first half of tonight’s home game is over.  The first half of play in the previous two games have forced the Cats to place catch-up.  They were held scoreless in the first half in both games, but came back to outscore BYU 26-9 in the second half and outscored Grambling 28-0 over the final two quarters.

Hawaii (1-2) should provide a good opportunity to re-start the offensive engine, regardless of which QB is under center tonight.  The Warriors won their last game by beating UT Martin, but struggled against that lower-division team to squeeze out a 41-36 win..  They lost their first game against California by 20 points and then were blown out at Ann Arbor against Michigan, 63-3.

But keep in mind last week’s game against lower-division Grambling was also supposed to be a blow-out – by Arizona.  There’s no such thing as a sure thing in college football.

The Cats better get out of the gate early tonight.  They really need this one.

(Photo: Arizona Athletics)