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Optimism is an unfamiliar and sometimes uneasy feeling for Arizona Wildcats football fans.
When the Cats are good enough to get your hopes up, which has not been frequently this millennium, there they go losing a key November game in overtime to Oregon, doing a face-plant after a 7-1 start to the season, seeing Scooby Wright get hurt after his award-winning sophomore season, having Khalil Tate stall after the glorious October 2017, hiring Kevin Sumlin … you get the idea.
The goals in the third season under head coach Jedd Fisch have been modest – be one of 82 teams that make a bowl game! – and Arizona at least didn’t wander off the path through a 2-1 nonconference season.
Then came Saturday at Stanford in the least interesting Pac-12 game of the day.
Optimism barely survived.
Against the worst team in the league.
But the Wildcats clung to the ledge by their fingertips, winning 21-20 – survive and advance! – but now here comes a home game Washington and road games at USC and Washington State before mid-October, and then another month-full of very losable games after that.
Can we get some oxygen for that optimism?
Is Dr. Fifita in the house?
We’re at THAT moment.
The coaches have 16 starts of evidence on quarterback Jayden de Laura, taking the good with the bad, which included an uninspiring three quarters, albeit turnover free, on Saturday. He was 14 of 26 for 157 yards but never seemed comfortable, getting off to another slow first quarter, retreating in the pocket, flirting with intentional grounding with last-second throwaways.
And then came another one of those backyard-ball scrambles where he’s trying to make something up, running toward the sideline, flicking the ball out of bounds … and a Stanford defender rolls up on his lower right leg late in the third quarter.
There was no immediate word on whether the severity of the injury will keep de Laura from playing against Washington on Saturday night, but we’ll be talking about the quarterback position one way or another all week in the context of what Noah Fifita did in the fourth quarter.
In the first meaningful snaps of this career, the redshirt freshman entered with 11:38 left, Arizona trailing 17-14 with the ball at its 34. Fifita’s first play: A quick short pass to the right that Jacob Cowing took 15 yards.
After a 9-yard rush by Jonah Coleman in which Fifita was out front, throwing a block, Fifita made a good decision to keep on a run-pass option and calmly slid feet-first into a 6-yard gain. On his fourth play, he sidestepped pressure while keeping his eyes on the prize, which was tight end Tanner McLachlan over the middle. Completion, 18 yards.
Fifita led the Cats near the goal line, where DJ Williams did the rest, scoring on a 2-yard run as Arizona poked ahead 21-17. The defense then held the Cardinal to a field goal, but the offense still needed to kill the final 3:08, starting with the ball at its 11.
Stanford had two timeouts, so Arizona couldn’t just run the ball to drain enough of the clock. The Wildcats needed a first down,
So, Fifita calmly completed a 7-yard pass to Cowing on second-and-10, and another quick 7-yard pass to Coleman on third-and-3. First down. Game over.
Fifita was an oh-so-comfortable 4-for-4 for 47 yards, with two runs for 9 yards.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all about Noah,” Fisch told Wildcats Radio 1290 after the game. “Noah is unbelievable in terms of his preparation, in terms of his focus, in terms of how much he loves the game of football. There was no flinch.”
It was all de Laura’s show last season. There was little choice as Fifita was a true freshman backup who preserved his redshirt by appearing briefly in three games. Saturday night’s PHNX Wildcats postgame podcast, hosted by Mike Luke, was ready to turn the page. “There needs to be a quarterback change,” Luke said.
Who knows how close de Laura and Fifita are in the coaches’ practice evaluation. Who knows if the coaches will HAVE to make a change due to injury or will CHOOSE to make a change.
What we do know is that optimism has a heartbeat … for at least one more week.
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