Texas Tech football: 5 Questions with Arizona Wildcats expert

TUCSON, ARIZONA - SEPTEMBER 07: Runningback J.J. Taylor #21 of the Arizona Wildcats rushes the football against linebacker Taylor Powell #4 of the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks during the first half of the NCAAF game at Arizona Stadium on September 07, 2019 in Tucson, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
TUCSON, ARIZONA - SEPTEMBER 07: Runningback J.J. Taylor #21 of the Arizona Wildcats rushes the football against linebacker Taylor Powell #4 of the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks during the first half of the NCAAF game at Arizona Stadium on September 07, 2019 in Tucson, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) /

As we continue to get ready for the Texas Tech football team’s week-three showdown with Arizona, we asked Eric Townsend of Zona Zealots five questions about the Wildcats.

Because the Texas Tech football program has not taken on Arizona since 1989, most Red Raiders may not know too much about the Wildcats.  So we reached out to Eric Townsend, site expert for Zona Zealots, to give us some insight into this week’s opponent.

A Tucson native and Arizona alum, Townsend has his thumb on the pulse of the Wildcats.  So here are five questions we sent his way to get a better understanding of what the Red Raiders could be in store for on Saturday night in the desert.

WER: Zona sits at No. 126 in the country in scoring defense by allowing an average of over 43 points a game thus far. What is the Wildcats’ biggest problem on that side of the ball and how might it impact their ability to slow the Red Raider offense?

Townsend: “Our pass rush for sure! We thought we would have a better group this year compared to previous seasons based on returners, incoming JUCO’s, etc. However, the production is just not there as we have just one sack this season. We struggle pressuring the opposing quarterbacks with any consistency, and as a result, it allows the offenses to find their rhythm, allows QB’s to have more time to throw and as a result our coverages suffer because it’s difficult to cover for an excess of seven seconds.

“Additionally, the safeties have not been great so far, and they got exposed versus Hawaii big time. Then late in the NAU game, they got caught (albeit some being younger guys and walk-on’s) in poor rotations, broken coverages, etc.

“Overall, I wouldn’t say it’s a complete lack of personnel in the shortcomings of the defense, but rather an execution problem and perhaps the defensive schemes being a little too complex.”

WER: Tech fans are rather familiar with Kevin Sumlin given his time at A&M and Houston where he mentored Kliff Kingsbury.  How does the Arizona fan base feel about where he has the program right now after a 5-7 season last year and an unexpected loss to a pretty good Hawaii team to open this year?

Townsend: “I definitely think they are mixed emotions right now, and we have a very divided fan base. If you listen to some fans, you’ll see a lot of calls for his firing already, and then you have more patient and rational fans thinking he needs a little more time to get “his guys” here and prove what he can do, 14 games is too small a sample size to judge appropriately in my opinion.

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“But nonetheless, it’s been frustrating to say the least, because biasedly, I think there was enough talent last year to at least make a bowl. Plus how we ended the year by absolutely blowing it against our rival ASU in the final game of the season, left a bad taste in the mouths of fans, and sadly when we lose to those guys up there, nobody is happy about that.  

“‘Lastly, I think coming in, expectations were moderately high, as they were again this year. I do know some were expecting better recruiting too, which hasn’t quite played out the way many had hoped… granted I think Tucson is a difficult place to recruit to from a football standpoint, but overall I think there’s some that might have a little buyers remorse and the warm and fuzzies about Sumlin being the coach at Arizona has subsided quite a bit.” 

WER: Last year, Khalil Tate ran for 1,187 fewer yards than he did in 2017.  This year, he had 108 on the ground at Hawaii.  How much was his decreased rushing output last year due to Sumlin’s new offense and how much was it due to his ankle injury and how much of a weapon do you think his legs will be this week?

Townsend: “It was a bit of both I think. [Offensive coordinator Noel] Mazzone has mentored some good QB’s and I know he is a wealth of knowledge when it comes to coaching quarterbacks. I think he definitely tried to help Tate in a lot of ways last year, by helping him get through his reads and being better about reading defenses as a whole, and as a result I think you saw a concerted effort by Tate in trying to be able to do more with his arm, than just his legs.

“However, despite what some have said, he actually was injured and we have it on good authority he didn’t play at 100% almost the entire season. You saw some of his explosiveness come back against ASU in the final game of the season, but he was definitely reeling from it last year. 

“This year, I think you could see a slight return to the 2017 Tate, but I think he’s matured immensely, to where he’s trying to be more of a complete and dynamic football player. I imagine you will see a bit more mobile Tate against Texas Tech, assuming the opportunity is there for it, but he’s definitely been better this year as far as taking what the defense gives him and making plays accordingly. But overall, yes, look out, because he still has phenomenal speed and running ability and that could be on display this Saturday.”

WER: Tech fans may not know much about J.J. Taylor because the 5-foot-6 running back may be the best-kept secret in the PAC 12.  What makes him so integral to the Arizona offense and how do you expect the Wildcats to utilize him this week?

Townsend: “He’s so incredibly versatile and tough, and at 5-foot-6, the kid is surprisingly hard to bring down as well. He’s durable, tough as nails, agile, quick, he’s just the full package. He has the ability to turn any play into a big one, and if he finds a seam, he’s going to run through it and hard. He’s been like that since high school, and he’s been a fan favorite ever since his freshman days here, the guy is just electric.

“That being said, I’d still expect him to be utilized heavily. He’s not the type of guy to get 25-30 touches a game, but you will definitely see him get about 15 carries, as well as get a couple passing targets out of the backfield since Arizona likes and wants to get him in space.”

WER: Thus far, the Wildcats have seven players with at least 50 receiving yards and seven players with a receiving TD.  Who are the weapons Tate will lean on most heavily in the passing game this week against an untested Red Raider secondary and what can we expect from the Cats when they put the ball in the air (lots of screens, lots of deep shots, crossing routes, etc.)?

Townsend: “Generally speaking, we still have a fairly untested group, but it’s a very deep group, and there have been some nice surprises early on this season. As for the match-up with Texas Tech, I would assume Cedric Peterson may get some key targets since he is the senior out of the group. Although his production hasn’t been completely there for him this season, he has a lot of veteran/ leadership experience which could be depended heavily upon this week.

“Outside of that, Drew Dixon was going to be leaned upon heavily due to his size, and he definitely played very well against NAU. Tayvian Cunningham has been the biggest surprise, as he was a late addition in the class and he’s also a track guy, so he’s incredibly quick in space and did a great job getting behind the NAU defense, making a couple of big time catches.

“In addition to that, Stanley Berryhill III has been great, and the production is definitely there. Jamarye Joiner moved to receiver this spring, but he’s adapting very quickly and is one heck of an athlete. Also, Brian Casteel has been a solid target for the Cats as well.

“And last, but not least Boobie Curry. He was the highly-regarded four-star receiver coming out of high school that actually played alongside Grant Gunnell (currently his college teammate). Curry hasn’t made an appearance yet due to injury, but depending on if he’s healthy, I could see him play and get some targets. He’s big, strong, athletic and incredibly talented. Curry looked very good in the spring.”

WER: Finally, what do you see happening in this early-season toss-up game?

Townsend:“Honestly, I think it’s dependent on how Arizona shows up. I think they could surprise and come away with a win here, but they typically disappear in the national spotlight. While the players have been particularly vocal this week about it being a big game and owning the responsibility of why the defense hasn’t performed, I just don’t see them slowing down Tech enough to win. I initially took the spread and the over on this one for Texas Tech, but thinking more about it now I see it being closer than I initially picked, but with that said, I’m thinking Tech 45 Arizona 41.”

Next. What we still don't know about the Red Raiders after two weeks. dark

Many thanks to Eric for helping us out with this piece and giving his insight.  You can follow Zona Zealots on Twitter @ZonaZealots and Eric Townsend @EricDTownsend to keep track of this week’s opponent all season.