Here are the storylines to watch Saturday night, when Arizona and Texas Tech meet at Arizona Stadium. The game kicks off at 7:30 p.m. and will be carried on ESPN:
After critical drop, Dixon picks himself up
Receiver Drew Dixon had redemption on his mind when he stepped onto the field at Arizona Stadium for the home opener last Saturday night.
How could he not?
The first time the football came Dixon’s way in his first game “really playing,” as he put it, the outcome couldn’t have been worse. The redshirt sophomore ran an in-breaking route on third-and-10 on Arizona’s first series of the season opener at Hawaii. Khalil Tate fired the ball into Dixon’s chest. The pass bounded off him for an interception in a game the Wildcats eventually would lose by one score.
“Obviously, I’m gonna play the next play,” Dixon said. “But going into the next week, in practice, I’m focusing on … taking my eyes to the ball, to my hands. And just knowing if I get another opportunity to catch the ball, I’m not gonna drop it.”
Dixon ended up with two catches for 13 yards against the Rainbow Warriors. He then tied for the team lead with four receptions for 46 yards and a touchdown last week against NAU. All those figures were career highs for the Cienega High School product, who realized a dream by scoring a TD in the stadium in which he used to attend games as a fan.
“Awesome, surreal moment,” Dixon said. “It just felt good to get my feet wet. I’m starting to get more confident in the game as I get some more experience. There’ll be more tests.”
The next one comes this Saturday night against Texas Tech, the first non-conference Power Five opponent Arizona has faced since 2012. The Red Raiders have allowed only 13 points in their first two games.
Dixon never has been better prepared for what’s to come. His transition from quarterback/multipurpose player in high school to full-time wide receiver in college has been bumpy at times. He appeared in seven games last season without recording a catch. Then the first opportunity he had in 2019 resulted in a turnover.
“It happens,” Dixon said. “It just happened to be my first play.”
Dixon said the coaching staff offered him positive reinforcement on the sideline after the mishap. He spent the rest of the game and the next two weeks striving to make sure something like that wouldn’t happen again.
At least one member of the program noticed.
“I thought Drew Dixon did a nice job Saturday night,” UA coach Kevin Sumlin said. “He’s improving. He used his size and his length.”
Sumlin was particularly complimentary of Dixon’s catch in traffic on a third-and-3 pass from Grant Gunnell in the second quarter. The ball was thrown slightly high and behind Dixon, who snared it while getting crunched by two defenders. Gunnell found Dixon in the end zone on the next play.
It unfolded just the way Dixon imagined it might someday.
“This is my city,” he said. “This is what made me … me. Being able to be in front of all these fans that have seen me grow – from Pop Warner to high school, and now I’m in college doing it here – it’s a big thing for me.”
Hard work, patience paying off for fan favorite Tilford
After a wait that seemed interminable — at least to the Arizona fans who had been pining for him to play — Nathan Tilford finally appears to have a regular role with the Wildcats.
The former four-star recruit — who essentially sat out the bulk of 2018, his sophomore season, as a healthy scratch — has appeared in each of Arizona’s first two games. In the first, he scored a touchdown. In the second, he rushed six times for 40 yards.
Entering Game 3 against Texas Tech, Tilford was asked what had been holding him back.
“Honestly … I wasn’t ready,” Tilford said. “I was still maturing, still making simple mistakes that I should have had fixed.”
In an era when others in his position might have pursued playing time elsewhere, Tilford decided to stay at Arizona and build his game. He has earned the trust of new position coach DeMarco Murray and a spot in the Wildcats’ robust running back rotation.
“He’s a hard-working dude,” said fellow running back J.J. Taylor, who’s one of the hardest-working players on the team. “He comes out every day with the working mentality of, I’m gonna get 1% better this day and get 1% better the next day.”
Tilford always had the talent. He’s built like an in-the-box safety at 6-2, 207. He has good speed for his size, and he’s difficult to bring down.
But running backs have to be able to do more than run to play for Kevin Sumlin. Mastering all aspects of the offense — particularly pass protection — took time.
So while other, lower-rated members of the 2017 recruiting class became regulars, Tilford languished on the bench. After appearing in 10 games as a reserve and special-teams contributor as a freshman, Tilford appeared in only one game as a sophomore. He carried the ball one time for 1 yard.
Despite his minimal role, Tilford said he never became impatient. Nor did he ever consider transferring.
“This is where I started,” said Tilford, who came to the UA from Colony High School in Ontario, California. “I want to finish where I start. We all have a role here, doing our thing. I don’t feel any need to leave.”
Tilford knows he isn’t the only one who’d be impacted by such a move. He’s the father of a 6-month-old girl, Arabella Rose. Tilford, his daughter and her mother live together in Tucson.
“When I’m here, I’m a football player,” Tilford said. “When I go home, I’m a dad.”
Tilford is a student-athlete, a father and a fan favorite. The mere mention of Tilford on Twitter sends UA fans into a tizzy. They’ve seen glimpses of his potential and long to see more.
“I have no idea that even existed,” Tilford said of his online popularity. “I just focus on what I gotta do, focus on the team. Come in and be a better player each and every day.
Teammate’s emergence has made Fields better
Linebacker Tony Fields II started every game during his first two seasons as an Arizona Wildcat. That hasn’t changed this season. But something has.
Arizona’s preseason depth chart listed Fields as a co-starter at his customary “Will” linebacker spot. He shared top billing with classmate Anthony Pandy.
Pandy’s emergence as a third linebacker option along with Fields and Colin Schooler has elevated the competition level at that position.
“We all know what Tony Fields brings,” UA coach Kevin Sumlin said, “but I think Anthony Pandy has really raised his level of play.”
Fields agreed with that assessment, saying: “Me and Anthony were battling all fall camp. Between me, Anthony and even Colin, we all go out every day trying to get each other better. I feel like that’s the only way that you can excel as a player. And once you get to the next level, it’s gonna be the same thing.”
Arizona has used packages featuring all three linebackers on the field at the same time – the Wildcats’ base defense is a 4-2-5 – and Fields said there’s “a lot” more where that came from. The three lead the team in tackles entering Saturday’s game vs. Texas Tech.
Fields and Pandy outsnapped Schooler during last week’s blowout win over NAU, playing deep into the second half while their teammate rested. Fields and Pandy tied for team-high honors with four tackles apiece. Fields had one stop for a loss and played well in pass coverage. Pandy had two TFLs. Sumlin said both players were “extremely active.”
If being pushed for his starting spot is what it took for Fields to take his game up a notch, he’s fine with that.
“I couldn’t really let anybody from the media or my family or anything really affect how I was feeling from that situation,” Fields said. “I knew what was going to happen. I knew we were going to both get a lot of playing time.”
Wells’ last visit to Arizona Stadium didn’t end well
The last time he coached at Arizona Stadium, Texas Tech’s Matt Wells witnessed perhaps the greatest moment in the history of a football program.
He just happened to be on the opposing sideline.
Wells coached Utah State to a berth in the 2017 Nova Home Loans Arizona Bowl. His Aggies faced the New Mexico State Aggies, who were making their first postseason appearance since 1960.
The contest went into overtime, and New Mexico State won in a walk-off. Larry Rose III’s 21-yard touchdown run gave NMSU a 26-20 victory. The fans of those Aggies – who had shown up in bunches after making the short drive from Las Cruces – were so elated that they stormed the field.
Utah State missed four field-goal attempts and converted only 1 of 18 third downs in the loss.
“We’re hurting right now,” Wells said after the game. “These kids, they fought with everything they had, spilled all their guts out there, and for that I am a proud coach.”
Better times were ahead for Utah State. USU went 11-2 last season, finishing it with a victory over North Texas in the New Mexico Bowl. By that point, Wells had been hired as Kliff Kingsbury’s successor at Texas Tech.
New Mexico State, meanwhile, has won only three games since that magical afternoon in Tucson.
Texas Tech matchup puts an end to Arizona’s Power Five outage
Texas Tech is Arizona’s first non-conference opponent from one of the so-called “Power Five” leagues since 2012. The Wildcats used to face P5 foes regularly, and they will resume doing so for much of the next decade-plus.
Saturday’s game is the first half of a home-and-home with the Red Raiders, who play in the Big 12 Conference. Arizona will travel to Lubbock next September.
Here are other P5 opponents the UA is scheduled to face, with their current conference affiliations:
2022: vs. Mississippi State (SEC)
2023: at Mississippi State
2024: at Kansas State (Big 12)
2025: vs. Kansas State
2028: at Nebraska (Big Ten)
2029: vs. Virginia Tech (ACC)
2030: at Virginia Tech
2031: vs. Nebraska
During Dick Tomey’s tenure as coach from 1987-2000, Arizona faced at least one opponent from a current P5 school every season. That streak ended in John Mackovic’s first season, 2001, when the UA’s non-conference slate consisted of San Diego State, Idaho and UNLV.