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Arizona lost in overtime. On the road. At an SEC team. After falling behind by 14 points in the first and third quarters. While committing five turnovers.
The Wildcats somehow nearly “stole” one, falling 31-24 Saturday night against a Mississippi State team that as recently as last year kicked sand in UA’s face, winning 39-17 in Tucson. So, Saturday night seems a bit like … progress. Getting a victory would have put Arizona squarely on the six-win-plus path many of us have predicted for this season, but now the Wildcats (1-1) will have to do it the hard way – by running the Pac-12 gauntlet – eight ranked teams this week! — after taking care of UTEP this coming weekend.
So, yeah, the loss hurts. It feels bad.
It’s as former Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez always said about rebuilding a program. First, you lose big, then you lose small, then you win small, then you win big. The third season of Jedd Fisch feels like one long tightrope walk between lose small, win small. The season will be decided by inches, such as those between the spot of the ball on Jayden de Laura’s final madcap scramble at the end of overtime and the first down marker.
At least Saturday’s loss showed steps toward navigating those inches.
I’m feeling good about the offensive line – Arizona’s best in a quarter century? – and can’t wait to see true freshman right guard Raymond Pulido get healthy enough to join the starting lineup and be a mauler in the run game.
Feeling good about the defense holding on fourth-and-goal from the 4 on the first possession of the game. Feeling good that the defense forced a gotta-have-it three-and-out late in the game to set up Arizona’s tying drive.
Feeling good about Tyler Loop in pressure situations after he split the uprights on a 36-yard field goal in the final seconds to tie the game.
“No flinch,” Fisch said.
Not feeling so good that de Laura has been intercepted 15 times in eight career losses with Arizona.
Feeling good that Arizona outgained the Bulldogs 431 to 307.
*Feeling good that the Cats are allowing 4.53 yards per play through two games. Last season, they gave up 6.59. A year earlier, 5.89.
*Caveat: The Wildcats have played an FCS team (NAU) and a Mississippi State team transitioning from a pass-happy Air Raid offense to a bland pro-style attack that looks like it will have zero success in the SEC this season.
Feeling good that sophomore linebacker Jacob Manu (21 tackles, 3 for loss, 1.5 sacks in two games) is going to be an Arizona legend. Feeling good that former five-star Justin Flowe (12 tackles vs. Mississippi State) just had this breakout game.
“Our defense is going to continue to get better and better and better and better,” Fisch said in his postgame press conference. “We’re going to have one of the better defenses in the Pac-12. … We have a defensive squad that loves football. And if you love football, good things are going to come your way.”
Feeling good to have “Big” Bill Norton in the middle of the defensive line, as he drew a holding penalty on the first play of overtime that put Mississippi State in a very bad position.
Not feeling so good about some of the missed tackling, like two plays later when Jeffery Pittman bounced off a potential stop at the line of scrimmage and raced for a 29-yard touchdown reception.
Feeling good that Mississippi State was determined to run the ball but managed a modest 145 yards on 39 carries after gashing the Cats early.
Feeling good that Arizona made adjustments at halftime and persistently worked the short passing game to Jacob Cowing. Feeling good that Tetairoa McMillan could be a 2024 preseason All-American.
“There’s always going to be a play here, a play there,” Fisch said. “We ended an inch short.”
And that’s the whole thing right there. How the Cats go about getting those final inches will determine whether UA fans have a chance to feel good after the season.