Every week throughout the season, we take a look back at the Arizona Wildcats’ previous game after re-watching it via the TV broadcast. Here are five key takeaways from the UA’s 34-0 loss at Colorado on Saturday:
1. THE LONGEST YARD
Would it have been a different game if Arizona had been able to score when it had first-and-goal at the 1 in the second quarter? It’s impossible to say for sure. But the tenor would have changed if the Wildcats had been up 7-6 at halftime. Here’s what we saw when we watched that sequence for a second time. After a delay to check whether Jalen John had scored (or fumbled), Jedd Fisch called for a QB sneak. Josh McCauley and Josh Baker generated a slight push, but not enough for Gunner Cruz to cross the plane. He tried the Drew Brees technique of extending the ball, to no avail. On second down, Fisch went to shotgun. Cruz flipped a short pitch to John to the left, who cut back inside and, again, landed just short. Fisch went shotgun again on third down, and John was stuffed on an inside run. We’re not huge fans of shotgun near the goal line unless you have a real running threat at quarterback. Maybe that would have been a good spot for Jamarye Joiner to take a direct snap? On fourth down, Cruz went back under center. The play was a bootleg to the right. Michael Wiley had a step on Isaiah Lewis, but Cruz didn’t pull the trigger. He instead tried to thread a pass to Alex Lines, who was well covered. Incomplete. Turnover on downs.
2. BEFORE THE COLLAPSE
Cruz and Will Plummer – who came in after Cruz suffered a possible season-ending thumb injury on a third-quarter scramble – were a tick off all afternoon. The sequence that immediately preceded the blocked punt – which precipitated Arizona’s collapse – perfectly illustrated that. The Wildcats had converted a third-and-7 on a nice catch-and-run by BJ Casteel, who made a shoestring grab of a low Cruz throw. On first down, Fisch called a play-action shot play. Joiner was open deep, but Cruz overthrew him. After a second-down play-action pass that resulted in a throwaway, Arizona faced third-and-10. Cruz had a clean pocket, and Wiley came open on a shallow crossing route. Cruz threw the ball too high, and it caromed off Wiley’s hands for an incomplete pass. At best, Wiley would have had the first down; at worst, Arizona would have faced fourth-and-short on Colorado’s side of the field. Instead, on the next play, the Wildcats surrendered the blocked punt, which the Buffaloes returned for a touchdown. Side note: Fisch did not call a single conventional running play on that series. The only run came on a direct snap to Joiner.
3. CONFIDENCE, TRUST
Fisch and the offensive staff clearly believed they could get to the edges and beat the Buffs on the perimeter. After the first play, a 9-yard gain by Stanley Berryhill III on a fly sweep, the tactic mostly didn’t work. To his credit, Fisch shifted gears in the second quarter, going to more of a downhill rushing attack that yielded decent dividends. But what does it say about Fisch’s confidence and trust in his quarterback and offensive line when a huge chunk of the “scripted” plays were receiver sweeps, funky options and passes behind the line of scrimmage? Cruz’s ADOT – average depth of target – was just 4.2 yards, according to Pro Football Focus. We don’t know for certain whether all those passes to the flats were Cruz’s first read, and on at least one occasion, a swing pass to Wiley in the first quarter, Cruz appeared to bail prematurely on his downfield options. But the game plan itself suggested Fisch didn’t have great faith in Cruz to complete passes down the field – or in the UA offensive line to open holes on standard running plays. Arizona had its best success this year when it ran directly at Oregon’s defense – and its best success vs. Colorado when John operated in the offset I-formation behind fullback Clay Markoff. Don’t overthink it.
4. THIS TIME IT’S PERSONNEL
Each week we provide some notes on individual players, so here goes … We like the pace at which Plummer plays, but he’s far from a polished product. One example: On Arizona’s penultimate offensive play, the Wildcats had a numbers advantage to the right – two receivers vs. one defender. Plummer never looked that way, instead throwing left to Berryhill for 3 yards. ... It’s easy to forget that John weighs 221 pounds after watching him maneuver through defenders between the tackles. He needs to be in the rotation moving forward. ... Casteel had a bounce-back game after having some drop issues earlier in the season. ... Lines got flagged one time for holding, but he generally blocked well in the run game. ... OG Donovan Laie is a warrior. He had to be helped to the locker room in the third quarter but came back and finished the game despite Arizona having no chance to win. ... The Wildcats’ top three defensive tackles – Trevon Mason, Kyon Barrs and Leevel Tatum III – played extremely well against the run, a great sign for a UA defense that has struggled in that area. ... CB Christian Roland-Wallace gave up a 31-yard reception on the opening drive but had excellent coverage on the play. He also continued to be one of Arizona’s surest tacklers. ... CB Isaiah Rutherford played the run well but struggled in pass coverage, which had been his forte.
5. TRYING TIMES
After a discouraging loss – not quite on the NAU level, but not too far behind – Fisch pointed forward. He said the Wildcats had reached halftime in their season and that the second half was a blank slate. He noted that there was no “bickering” in the locker room and that “everybody’s rooting for one another.” That’s a good sign. Another that we’ll be looking for over the next six games: whether Arizona keeps playing with maximum effort, no matter the score or situation. If the season continues the way it’s gone – the Wildcats have dropped all six of their contests, extending their school-record losing streak to 18 games – it’ll be easy to check out. We’ve seen plenty of teams go down that path. If Fisch is truly the right man for the job, he won’t let that happen. We saw no indications that the effort level was waning in Boulder, even when the game was out of reach in the fourth quarter. If Arizona keeps playing hard – and can get above-average play from its offense – the skid will end. We’re not sure when or against whom. But if the over/under is 2022, we’re still taking the under.