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Feeling a little different this Sunday?
Still glowing about the Arizona Wildcats’ 44-6 victory at No. 19 Washington State on Saturday night?
This doesn’t feel a one-off. Arizona has been building toward this.
The Wildcats played well a couple of weeks ago against then-No. 7 Washington, scoring late to make it a one-possession loss, 31-24. They then outplayed No. 9 USC on the road but left with a gut-punch 43-41 triple-overtime loss (ahem, maybe they should have gone for two at the end of the first overtime).
Disheartening? Perhaps. But for the Wildcats, those close calls turned into belief, which turned into a complete conquering of the Cougars. It was a blowout. A boatrace. A Bear Down beatdown.
As I wrote last month after Arizona eked out a 21-20 victory at Stanford, “Optimism is an unfamiliar and sometimes uneasy feeling for Arizona Wildcats football fans” … but this one, this moment in time, feels different.
“Confidence. Confidence,” coach Jedd Fisch said on his postgame interview on 1290-AM Tucson. “This team is confident. They understand that they’re good.”
Let’s go over a few things.
The quarterback position
Pac-12 announcer Yogi Roth, in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s game, said Noah Fifita “has put Jedd Fisch in a precarious situation as to which quarterback to start.”
Nope. This is over. Team Noah, 100%.
It might not be a fair that Jayden de Laura loses his starting job due to an ankle injury, but a couple of thoughts. Life isn’t fair. Noah is playing better.
Since Fifita came on in the fourth quarter against Stanford, leading the go-ahead TD drive and later icing the game with a first-down pass, the redshirt freshman is 90 for 121 (74.4 percent) for 924 yards and eight touchdowns, with two interceptions.
You. Cannot. Take. Fifita. Out. Of. The. Starting. Lineup.
Cool moment, though: de Laura came in to take the final knee-down snap against Washington State, then turned and hugged Fifita, who was lined up in the backfield.
Wildcats defense is legit
I was skeptical through four games because the Wildcats had not faced any of the premier passing attacks that awaited deeper into the Pac-12 season. Now, they have.
The Wildcats haven’t flinched in the past three weeks while playing the nation’s top-rated passing team (Washington), the 2022 Heisman winner (USC’s Caleb Williams) and a Washington State team that was in the national top 20 in passing … until Saturday night.
Arizona didn’t allow a touchdown pass to either Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. or WSU’s Cameron Ward, while holding Williams to just 219 passing yards, including the overtimes.
The Wildcats are controlling the opponent’s passing game while not giving up massive chunks of yards on the ground. The defensive coaches can deploy their seven-DB “dollar” package without sacrificing much against the run – at least that was the case against Washington State.
Arizona has risen to 13th in the country in rushing defense at 96.0 yards per game. The Wildcats yield of 3.04 yards per rush is 12th nationally.
With a deep high-quality rotation up front, active linebackers such as Jacob Manu and Justin Flowe and lengthy cornerbacks like Ephesians Prysock, Tacario Davis and Treydan Stukes, the Wildcats have given us these numbers to chew on:
Arizona’s three-week totals against Washington, USC, WSU:
- First downs: Arizona 81, opponents 62
- Yards: Arizona 1,364, opponents 1,059
- Points: Arizona 109, opponents 80
“Our defense is good. Our offense is good. Our kicking game is good,” Fisch said. “When all three phases can play well together, you have a great shot.”
This feels as good since …
A win over a ranked Washington State team makes you feel as good about Arizona football since … uh, the last time Arizona beat a ranked Washington State team.
That would be Oct. 28, 2017, when Khalil Tate capped the most remarkable month-long performance in Arizona football history by leading the Wildcats to their fourth consecutive victory, a 58-37 win over the No. 15 Cougars. Arizona would be ranked No. 23 the next week … and then did a face-plant, finishing 1-3 in November and losing a bowl game to Purdue.
What’s next this time?
This feels like a best-is-yet-come moment.
Fisch was asked about the new starting backfield — Fifita and second-year running back Jonah Coleman 00 that emerged in the past three games as injury replacements for veterans de Laura and Michael Wiley.
Fisch – intentionally, you have to believe – used the word “development” as a response to a five-star recruit who decommitted from Arizona last week, saying that the program was “not the right fit … with regard to my development.”
Said Fisch: “The point is, we develop players here. We take freshman and we invest in freshman and we get them to be the type of players we believe they can be, and when their time comes, they’re ready to roll.”
Top photo: Noah Fifita is completing more than 70% of his passes in the past three games. (Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)
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