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I was sitting in the Arizona Stadium press box Saturday night next to another veteran scribe, Steve Rivera. Late in the fourth quarter, when it was apparent the Wildcats were going to beat UCLA for their third consecutive victory against a ranked team, we turned to look at each other.
“This is unbelievable,” he said.
Hey, folks, this is &^%^@#! unbelievable.
“Our team right now,” coach Jedd Fisch said after the 27-10 beatdown of the Big Ten-bound Bruins, “feels they belong.”
Even those paying just a wee bit of attention could see that the Wildcats were improving in the third year under Fisch. You know, a bowl, any dang bowl, would be nice, right?
But what’s going on right now could soften the hearts of any Arizona fan conditioned to expect the worst, to always thinking they will have their hands pressed against the window wishing they could have nice, shiny things, to forever be Charlie Brown exclaiming “Auugh!” while flailing in midair as Lucy pulls the football away,
Bowl eligibility for the first time since 2017, and it only took nine games?
A Top 25 ranking?
Victories over the No. 19, No. 11 and No. 19 teams in the nation?
A defense that tackles with bad intentions?
A freshman quarterback who looks like Ant-Man, plays like Superman?
This is against all odds.
We really need to consider what we just saw: The Wildcats just played five consecutive games against ranked teams, losing to the best of the group (Washington) by a touchdown, falling at five-star fueled USC in triple-overtime and then ripping off wins over Washington State, Oregon State and UCLA.
And absolutely none of it is fluky, fueled by wild turnovers, crazy bounces, gifts from the college football gods.
This isn’t an official stat, but number of times Arizona has been the less physical team in the past five weeks: None.
Arizona just ran for 129 yards against what was the nation’s top-rated rushing defense (63.1 yards per game).
“It’s just a mentality. Make them play, make them not want to tackle you,” said sophomore running back Jonah Coleman. “You keep running somebody over and over and over and over again, they not going to want to keep coming back. Make them fold. That’s the mentality.”
Fisch pointed to the USC game as the “we belong” moment. Which, ahem, further confirms what I wrote last week about how it’s beginning to feel a lot like 1992.
Just as the 8-7 loss at No. 1 Miami in 1992 spurred Dick Tomey’s Wildcats to believe “we can beat everybody” and started one of the great runs in school history, the 2023 Wildcats are brimming with “we belong” confidence.
“We know that we’re good enough. We know that we can do it,” Coleman said. “The mindset is every time we step on the field we expect to win. It’s not, ‘Oh, I hope.’ Nah. We expect to win. We know we’re the better team — physically, mentally, anything.”
Wildcats have come so far
Fisch has these Wildcats accelerating at lightspeed away their recent past. These objects definitely do NOT appear closer than they actually are:
- Kevin Sumlin
- The winless COVID season
- A 20-game losing streak
- 70-7 loss to Arizona State
In a few short seasons, Fisch has fixed the failings.
Remember how the Wildcats could compete for about three quarters but then fade and fizzle? The Wildcats have outscored foes 80-37 in the fourth quarter this season.
Remember how the Wildcats were 118th nationally in red zone offense in 2021? They rank eighth now, converting 94.9 percent of their opportunities.
Remember how the Wildcats were poor tacklers and couldn’t stop the run, ranking 125th in 2020, then 99th, then 124th last season? They are now 16th, allowing just 101.9 yards per game.
Remember how frustrating it was when the Wildcats couldn’t convert on third down? They rank 17th in the country, converting 47.8 percent.
We could go on.
The opportunity for growth remains with turnovers. Arizona is at minus-4 for the season but Noah Fifita has stabilized that area since taking over at quarterback five games ago. The Wildcats are plus-1 in this five-game stretch.
MOre adventure awaits.
“We know we have more work to be done,” defensive back Martell Irby said Saturday night, “but in this moment it feels amazing.”
Top photo: Arizona players celebrate with the students after a 27-10 victory over UCLA (Zachary BonDurant-USA TODAY Sports)
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