Jordan McCloud had just thrown his second of five interceptions against Oregon, a pick in the back of the end zone on a play where he could have gained a few yards on the ground instead of forcing the ball into coverage.
Frustrated, his head down, McCloud jogged back to the sideline. He was quickly met by coach Jedd Fisch, who instead of tearing into his quarterback about the blatant mistake reaffirmed why he’d gone with McCloud as the starter for that game and, it turns out, for the foreseeable future.
“He was just like, ‘I’m riding with you, I trust you, just keep playing your game, I know you can play,’” McCloud recalls. “That helped me a lot, built my confidence.”
Immediately after the Oregon game McCloud was tabbed by Fisch as the permanent starter, ending a merry-go-round at the position that saw Gunner Cruz start the first two games and then Will Plummer the third. McCloud subbed in for Plummer during the second half of the NAU game, going 6 of 7 for 66 yards and a touchdown, then followed that up with 233 passing yards and a TD as well as 64 rushing yards against Oregon.
Yet the five picks is what most people will remember. McCloud became the first player in FBS this season to throw five interceptions in a game, something Maryland’s Taulia Tagovailoa matched six days later, and first by a Pac-12 QB since Washington State’s Luke Falk did so in 2017.
McCloud entered that game having gotten most of the first-team reps in practice the week before, but before that he’d been much lower on the pecking order. Fisch said McCloud got “limited to zero, almost no reps in our offense” for Arizona’s first two games before moving up to No. 2 on the depth chart ahead of NAU.
During the bye week, however, he had all the first-team reps.
“He had all the reps with the starting group ... Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and then he had all the reps on Sunday,” Fisch said. “So I think that experience was really helpful.”
This is the second time McCloud has taken over as starting QB during a season. As a redshirt freshman at South Florida in 2019 he stepped in for Blake Barnett during the third quarter of a game at Georgia Tech, completing 4 of 5 passes for 90 yards and a TD. He started a week later against South Carolina State, throwing for 217 yards and 3 TDs and remained the starter the rest of that season and the majority of 2020 before entering the NCAA transfer portal.
McCloud committed to Arizona in January but didn’t arrive in Tucson until June, after completing his degree. That put him behind Cruz and Plummer, who participated in fall camp, and according to Fisch contributed to his decision to put McCloud third on the QB depth chart after training camp.
“When he made the decision, my faith was crazy high,” McCloud said of Fisch. “God’s time is never wrong. I trust the coach that he made the right decision and what he went with his heart was best for this team at the time. I just knew I had to be ready whenever my number was called.”
Aiding his preparation was conversations he’d have with Fisch, Cruz, Plummer and walk-on Luke Ashworth on the sidelines during games.
“The first two games, when Gunner came to the sideline ... me, Gunner, Luke and Will and Coach Fisch were all right there talking to each other about whatever happened on the previous drive,” McCloud said. “So we’re all communicating things that each of us saw that could maybe help for the next drive in the game going on.
“Those two games that I sat on the sideline and listened to how Coach called games, and being able to experience that from the sideline, understanding the offense more. To be able to know that it’s not as hard as what people may think. He’s calling the same things he calls in practice. It’s a pro style offense so you have to understand where your protection is coming from, your checkdowns and things like that.”
Speaking of checkdowns, McCloud said that’s been something Fisch and quarterbacks coach Jimmie Dougherty have focused heavily on with him since the Oregon game. Same goes for throwing the ball away, trying to get a few yards with his legs or, if necessary, taking a sack. Anything but forcing a throw that leads to a turnover.
“It’s three of them that I should have just threw the ball away, being able to live for the next down and that’s okay,” he said. “Obviously you don’t want to, but sometimes it’s okay if you get sacked instead of trying to play hero ball, it’s okay to throw the ball away, instead of trying to make the big play all the time.”
Interceptions hadn’t been an issue for McCloud at South Florida, where he was picked off just 10 times in 418 attempts, which made his performance at Oregon all the more surprising.
“I would say I was trying to do a little too much, just not playing within the system, letting my guys help me, trying to play a little bit too much hero ball,” he said. “It happens, and I can say that it won’t happen again.”