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What to watch for when Arizona visits Colorado, site of last win

arizona-wildcats-football-colorado-buffaloes-preview-gunner-cruz-2021-pac12-red-zone-analysis Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats reach the midpoint of their first year under Jedd Fisch still looking for their first win of the season. First victory in more than two years, to be exact, as their losing streak is now at 17 games, the longest active skid in FBS.

Now comes a trip to Boulder, where the UA’s last win took place on Oct. 5, 2019. That 35-30 was the fourth straight for the Wildcats at Folsom Field, where they last lost in 2011.

Colorado (1-4, 0-2 Pac-12) has lost its last four games since a season-opening victory over Northern Colorado, getting outscored 112-34 along the way.

Here’s what to watch for when these equally desperate-to-win teams meet at 12:30 p.m. PT Saturday on Pac-12 Network.

Gunner Cruz 2.0

Gunner Cruz was Arizona’s first starting quarterback this season, which also made him the first to be benched. Now he’s getting a second chance to prove why he was named the starter coming out of training camp, as well as to show which of his two starts were more indicative of his ability.

Some of that will be dictated by the UA’s offensive game plan, but most of it is on Cruz to show his strong outing against BYU wasn’t a fluke and that his tentative performance against San Diego State (before getting pulled) wasn’t the norm.

“I’m hopeful that he’ll replicate it, that it doesn’t have to come from us, per se,” UA coach Jedd Fisch said. “He certainly is back to embracing being the starting quarterback. I think sometimes you wind up, it’s easier to kind of like phase away when you’re not the starting quarterback or you feel like you’ve been demoted and you kind of just hang back. He’s re-established his personality, his competence, in terms of in the huddle. And the way he’s really talked and the way he’s approached the game in terms of preparation has been very good. He’s throwing the ball extremely well, which we know that he can, he certainly has the ability to stretch the field.”

Cruz threw for 336 yards on 34-of-45 passing against BYU, dipping to just 70 yards in two-plus quarters against SDSU. Fisch said Arizona being in a big hole early contributed to Cruz’s play.

“He played a really good football game against BYU, and the San Diego State game, he played six football plays and we were down 21-0,” Fisch said. “And I think when you go back in the seventh play of the game, knowing it’s 21-0, your mindset’s a little bit off, and I think you start feeling like you got to press, you got to score at 21-point touchdown. We were never able to get into a rhythm, and I think Gunner always felt he was playing behind the eight ball.

“Our goal would be to make sure that we keep him comfortable. We don’t want to be in a situation where he feels as if he has to win the game itself, when it’s not what you’re looking for.”

No self-inflicted wounds

Arizona has failed to top the 19-point mark in eight consecutive games, its longest stretch since 1965. Yet it has outgained three of five opponents this season and is in the top half nationally in passing.

Raw stats don’t always tell the whole story, though. They don’t account for all of the mistakes—’self-inflicted wounds’ are how Fisch has described them—the Wildcats have made, particularly when in position to score.

The UA has reached the red zone 18 times, scoring on 13 occasions, but only five of those possessions resulted in touchdowns. The Wildcats’ red zone TD rate (27.78 percent) is last among 130 FBS teams.

“Too many field goals,” Fisch said. “Too many missed field goals, too many penalties in the red area. And it’s it’s interesting because it really comes from all 11. There’s not like a common theme or a common trend.”

Arizona committed 12 penalties last time out against UCLA, its most in a game since 2018. Two came in the red zone and two came on plays that would have resulted in first downs.

Sweating the under

Life’s too short to bet the under, but in this case it’s hard not to at least consider it.

As bad as Arizona’s offense has been in terms of scoring, it pales in comparison to the struggles Colorado has had when it has the ball. The Buffaloes are second-to-last nationally in total offense (239.6 yards per game) and scoring (13.8 points per game).

Since beating FCS foe Northern Colorado 35-7 on Sept. 3 the Buffs have managed just four TDs and two field goals, at one point going 24 possessions without points.

Fisch, while acknowledging Colorado’s offensive struggles, attributes some of them to having played a tough slate including ASU, Minnesota and Texas A&M, the last of which just knocked off defending national champion Alabama.

“I think that they’re probably better in the passing game than they’ve shown,” he said. “I think they got some talented guys at the skill positions that we’ve got to be ready for. And I think that they probably will try to throw some balls up on the corners and see what that looks like.”

Run (and defend the run) to win

Arizona will do its darnedest to try and establish the run early, and it stands to reason Colorado will do the same. It’s what the Buffaloes did last December when they ran for 407 yards against the UA in Tucson, with Jarek Broussard going for 301 by himself.

Broussard only has 256 yards in five games this season, averaging 3.6 yards per carry with one TD against FBS opponents. Now he gets to face a UA defense that was just gashed by UCLA for 329 yards on the ground.

“I would assume that they’re going to try to go back to giving the ball to Broussard and give him a chance,” Fisch said. “They have a quarterback who could run, I saw him break a long against A&M. So we have to be ready for the fact that they’re going to use their running game to their advantage. They’re going to try to get us in gap integrity issues. We worked very hard, this past week, to continue to get better in that regard. We all know it’s explosive runs, right, that’s what it all comes down to.”

Arizona has allowed 10 rushing plays of 20-plus yards while Colorado has given up five. The Buffs have generated five runs of 20 or more yards, compared to one: a 23-yard rush by receiver Stanley Berryhill III against SDSU on Sept. 11.

The grass staying greener in Boulder

A day game at Folsom Field makes for one of the best college football settings in the country, thought Arizona has very much enjoyed the conditions regardless of the start time. As noted above, the Wildcats have won four in a row there.

As unique as that success there might be, considering Arizona is 10-28 in all other road games since 2013. But even more unexplainable is the Wildcats’ ability to win at Folsom’s grass surface.

In fact, it’s the only grass field the UA has been able to win a game on since it installed turf at Arizona Stadium in 2013. It is 0-18 on all other natural turf fields in that span, losing four times apiece at ASU, USC and UCLA, twice at Stanford and twice on neutral fields in Glendale, Ariz. and Santa Clara, Calif.

Then again, those previous four trips to Boulder featured Arizona offenses that included Ka’Deem Carey (119 rushing yards and four TDs in 2013), Anu Solomon (283 passing yards, two TDs in 2015) and Khalil Tate (908 yards of total offense and eight TDs combined in 2017 and 2019).