Wildcats Open 2020 Season at Utah
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TUCSON, Ariz. - The Arizona Wildcats (0-0) open their 2020 conference-only schedule in Salt Lake City against the Utah Utes (0-0) on Saturday afternoon. The game is slated to be televised on ESPN2 at 1:30 p.m. MST.
Arizona's offense is led by sophomore quarterback Grant Gunnell and a slew of talented skill players, including running back Gary Brightwell and wide receiver Jamarye Joiner.
The Wildcats defense, under the direction of first-year defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads, will have a new look but feature many familiar faces such as defensive back Lorenzo Burns, linebacker Jalen Harris, and linebacker Anthony Pandy.
A complete game preview is below.
Arizona Notes & Numbers
- The Arizona Wildcats travel to Salt Lake City to open the 2020 season against Utah. This is the first of seven games for Arizona in their COVID-19-shortened, conference-only schedule.
- The Wildcats are 83-28-5 all-time in the first game of the season, and 48-62-4 all-time in road openers. Head coach Kevin Sumlin is 8-4 in his career in season openers.
- This will be the second consecutive year that Arizona has opened the season on the road. Prior to last year's opener at Hawai'i, the Wildcats had not began their season away from Arizona Stadium since 2010.
- Utah leads the all-time series against Arizona 24-19-2 and holds a slight edge over the Wildcats in Salt Lake City at 12-9. Arizona's last win on the road at Utah was a 42-10 rout of the Utes in 2014.
- The Wildcats opener versus Utah is the latest known start to a season in program history. Arizona and Utah last met in a season opener in 2005 when head coach Mike Stoops and the Wildcats took a 27-24 loss in Salt Lake City.
- QB Grant Gunnell enters his sophomore season following a 2019 season that saw him complete 65 percent of his passes for 1,239 yards with nine touchdowns and one interception in eight appearances. Gunnell's completion percentage of 65.2 ranked fourth all-time in single-season history at Arizona with at least 100 attempts and set an Arizona freshman record.
- Arizona added four new defensive coaches for the 2020 season who have combined for over a century of Division I coaching experience, including 17 seasons spent coaching in the Pac-12 Conference.
65.2: Sophomore QB Grant Gunnell completed 65.2% of his passes across eight games worth of action in his freshman campaign. This mark is the fourth-best single-season completion percentage in program history and the best rate of any freshman Wildcat passer.
11,358: The Wildcats have rushed for 11,358 yards since 2016, the best mark in the Pac-12 Conference. Arizona has led the conference in rushing three times over that stretch, and are one of just three teams (also: Oregon, Utah) with a rushing total north of 10,000 in the last four years.
65: The Wildcats return an impressive 65 starts along the offensive line for the 2020 season. This includes Laie's 24 career starts, 22 from Josh McCauley, eight from Robert Congel, seven from Paiton Fears, two from Jordan Morgan, and one each from Josh Donovan and Steven Bailey.
552/5: Redshirt sophomore WR Jamarye Joiner hauled in 552 receiving yards and five touchdowns in 2019, his first season at the receiver position after transitioning from quarterback. Both of those marks led the Wildcats WR corps last year.
SOME GAME THEMES:
- Sophomore Grant Gunnell enters his team's season opener with an active streak of 92 consecutive pass attempts without an interception. By comparison, Nevada's Carson Strong enters the week with the NCAA's longest streak at 230 pass attempts. Gunnell trails ASU's Jayden Daniels at 157 pass attempts and USC's Kedon Slovis at 126.
- Defensive back Lorenzo Burns leads the Wildcats in experience with 35 career starts. The senior trails only Oregon's Jordon Scott's 37 career starts as the most experienced defensive returner in the Pac-12 Conference. Burns is tied with ASU's Chase Lucas, who also has 35 career starts, for second place.
- Arizona's 2020 and 2019 recruiting classes have helped bolster the program's roster. Part of a conference-wide youth movement, The Wildcats' underclassmen make up 61.6 percent of its total roster, which ranks as the 23rd youngest roster nationally and 6th in the Pac-12.
- The Wildcats have won both of their Pac-12 openers under head coach Kevin Sumlin. Arizona downed Oregon State, 35-14, in Corvallis in 2018 before defeating UCLA, 20-17, in Tucson in 2019.
- Saturday's 2 p.m. (MST) kick-off marks the fifth time in the last 11 Pac-12 games that Arizona has kicked off at 3 p.m. or earlier local time.
- Coach Kevin Sumlin holds a career mark of 8-4 in season openers in his head coaching career at Arizona, Texas A&M and Houston.
- The Wildcats ended the 2019 season on a seven-game losing streak, which they will look to snap in Salt Lake City on Saturday. Arizona has also lost four consecutive games to Utah by an average margin of defeat of 19.8 points per game.
- Arizona holds an all-time record of 19-24-2 against Utah with a mark of 4-5 since the Pac-10 became the Pac-12 Conference.
- Anthony Pandy set a career high with 11 total tackles in the two teams' last meeting.
CHARTING THE CATS (CAREER):
- Redshirt senior defensive back Lorenzo Burns has notched nine career interceptions in four seasons, putting him just three picks shy of breaking into the Wildcats all-time top 10 leaderboard.
- Burns is also on the verge of cracking into Arizona's career top 10 in pass breakups. Through four years he has picked up 25 PBU, just three shy of tying Trevin Wade (2008-11) and Randy Robbins (1980-83) for 10th all-time.
1 IF BY LAND, 2 IF BY AIR: Arizona opens the 2020 season after two consecutive seasons as one of the top offenses in the Pac-12 Conference. The Wildcats are the only team in the Pac-12 to finish in the top three of the conference in rushing and passing yards per game in each of the last two seasons. Arizona offensive returners amassed 83 total starts a year ago.
QB1: Quarterback Grant Gunnell enters his sophomore season following a 2019 season that saw him complete 65 percent of his passes for 1,239 yards with nine touchdowns and one interception in eight appearances. Gunnell's completion percentage of 65.2, ranked fourth all-time in single-season history at Arizona with at least 100 attempts and set an Arizona freshman record. The Texan also finished 2019 with a pass efficiency rating of 150.18, which ranked fifth in single-season program history at Arizona. His freshman season was highlighted by his Pac-12 Freshman of the Week honor following his completion of 29-of-44 passes for 352 yards and a touchdown in a win over UCLA in his first career start.
BETTER LATE THAN NEVER: The Wildcats open the 2020 season versus Utah in what is the latest known start to a season in program history. The Cats opened the 1945 season on October 13 versus Northern Arizona and department archives do not have dates for games from the 1899 to the 1930 seasons. Arizona and Utah last met in a season opener in 2005 when head coach Mike Stoops and the Wildcats took a 27-24 loss in Salt Lake City.
BACK FOR MORE: The Arizona defense returns a core of experienced letterwinners, led by senior defensive back Lorenzo Burns who enters the year with 35 career starts. Linebacker Jalen Harris is Arizona's leading returner in sacks and tackles for losses at 4.0 and 6.5 respectively. Burns and Harris are two of five Wildcats who started in eight or more last games on defense alongside defensive lineman Trevon Mason, linebacker Anthony Pandy, and defensive back Christian Roland-Wallace.
SOUTH BY SOUTHWEST: Coach Sumlin and the Wildcats added a pair of graduate transfers on the defensive line in Roy Lopez Jr. and Aaron Blackwell. The duo came to Tucson from both ends of the Rio Grande Rivalry in neighboring New Mexico with Blackwell transferring from the University of New Mexico and Lopez from New Mexico State University. Arizona's new defensive line coach, Stan Eggen, coached for the UNM Lobos from 2016 to 2019.
IN A RUSH: Despite doing much of their damage through the air recently, Arizona's rushing attack still remains dangerous. The Wildcats finished the 2020 season third in the Pac-12 with an average of 174.0 yards per game on the ground. Prior to that, the Wildcats had strung together four consecutive years of averaging north of 200 yards per game rushing. Arizona's ability to run the ball often ties to the success of the team. Over the past five seasons, when the Wildcats have rushed for 200 or more yards, the team has posted a record of 26-11. In game where Arizona hasn't reached the 150-yard mark as a team, they are 6-18. The Wildcats have dominated the Pac-12 rushing scene since the start of the 2016 season and is the only program to top 11,000 yards in that span. In fact, only two other schools (Oregon and Utah) have even broken the 10,000 yard mark in that span.
CENTURY MEN: Arizona added four new defensive coaches for the 2020 season with decades of division one coaching experience, including 17 easons spent coaching in the Pac-12 Conference.
GRANT LAND: Sophomore quarterback Grant Gunnell enters the 2020 season as the Wildcats clear-cut No. 1 signal caller after splitting time during his freshman campaign with Khalil Tate. Gunnell's collegiate debut came in blowout duty against Northern Arizona in week two of 2019; he threw for 151 yards and three touchdowns on 9-for-11 passing. His first career start came in game four, the Wildcat's Pac-12 opener against UCLA – in the game, Gunnell completed 29-of-44 pass attempts for 352 yards, one touchdown, and no interceptions while leading Arizona to a 20-17 victory. His effort against UCLA earned him Pac-12 Freshman Player of the Week honors. He also saw playing time against Washington, at USC, at Stanford, against Oregon State, at Oregon, and against Utah. Outside of his start against UCLA, his most extended playing time came in a loss to Oregon State in which he completed 19-of-29 passes for 269 yards and two touchdowns. When it was all said and done, Gunnell threw for 1,239 yards, nine touchdowns, and suffered just one interception on 101-of-155 passing in his freshman campaign. His 65.2% completion percentage ranks fourth all-time in Arizona program history with a minimum of 100 attempts and was the best ever effort by a freshman passer. Prior to the season, Gunnell was selected as one of Arizona's five team captains – he is the only underclassmen among the five captains.
I'M MR. BRIGHTWELL: After two years of serving the Wildcats as an effective backup running back, senior Gary Brightwell finally gets his time in the spotlight as Arizona's primary tailback in 2020. Coming into the year, Brightwell has toted the ball 157 times for 915 yards and eight touchdowns; he has averaged 5.8 yards per carry and 26.1 yards per game during his time in Tucson. His five touchdowns in 2019 were a career high after scoring three times during his sophomore year in 2018. Brightwell's biggest career game to date on the ground came against Northern Arizona last season, as he rushed for 141 yards on just five carries. Included in his NAU onslaught was a 94-yard rushing touchdown, the longest of his career and tied for the second-longest rush in school history (also: Nic Grigsby, 2009, NAU). The next week against Texas Tech, Brightwell posted his first career multi-score game after going for 85 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries. He also scored twice against Oregon State, with one of his touchdowns coming through the air for his first career receiving touchdown.
INSTANT IMPACT: Redshirt sophomore wide receiver Jamarye Joiner impressed for the Wildcats in 2019, ultimately leading the receiver corps with 552 yards and five touchdowns through the air in his first go-around at the position. The Tucson native and Cienega High School product joined the Wildcats in 2018 as a quarterback and made the transition to wide receiver during Arizona's 2019 fall camp. In his first collegiate action at wideout against Hawai'i in week one, Joiner pulled in four receptions for 72 yards and his first career receiving touchdown. His best outing of the year came at Arizona State in the Territorial Cup, in which he pulled in career highs in receptions (7), yards (140), and touchdowns (2). His 140 yards against the Sun Devils were the most by an Arizona receiver since Cayleb Jones had 182 versus New Mexico in 2015. Joiner also reeled in touchdowns against Washington and Stanford last year.
THE PANDY MAN CAN: Senior linebacker Anthony Pandy steps into a leadership role for the Wildcats defense in 2020 after three years of steady improvement. He is expected to serve as Arizona's primary Mike linebacker in first-year defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads' new base 3-4 scheme. During his three-year career to date, Pandy has tallied 100 total tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, and one interception. The best season of his career came in 2019, his junior campaign, during which he collected 66 tackles, five tackles for loss, and two sacks while playing in all 12 games. Pandy's 66 tackles in 2019 are the most among all of Arizona's returning defensive players. The best tackling performance of his career came against this week's opponent, Utah, last season – in a home game against the Utes in 2019, Pandy notched a career-high 11 tackles.
ZO SAYS NO: Redshirt senior defensive back Lorenzo Burns is the Wildcats most experienced defensive player, having seen time in 37 games with 35 starts since 2016. Last season he was named the Wildcats Team Defensive MVP and earned Pac-12 All-Conference Honorable Mention recognition after tallying 47 tackles, four interceptions, and seven pass breakups across 12 starts at cornerback. Burns' four interceptions led the team and were tied for the most by a single Pac-12 player. He comes into 2020 with nine career interceptions, putting him three shy of breaking into the programs all-time top 10 leaderboard. Burns is also just three pass breakups short of breaking into the Arizona top 10.
NEW ROLE, SAME JALEN: Redshirt junior linebacker Jalen Harris is making the transition from a "hand in the ground" pass rush specialist to full-time outside linebacker under Arizona's new defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads. He is the Wildcats leading returner in both tackles for loss (6.5) and sacks (4.0). During three seasons and 28 games in the cardinal and navy, Harris has compiled 56 total tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 7.0 sacks, and one forced fumble. Harris played in all 12 of the Wildcats games in 2019 with eight starts on the defensive line and notched multiple tackles in seven different games.