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What to watch for when Arizona hosts Cal on Homecoming

arizona-wildcats-cal-golden-bears-homecoming-football-preview-covid-reed-mitchell-analysis-2021 Arizona Athletics

Arizona is back in Tucson for Homecoming, taking on the Cal Golden Bears at 12 p.m. MT Saturday. The Wildcats are hoping that the combination of a rare day game at Arizona Stadium and what should be the largest crowd of the season can translate into ending their 20-game losing streak, the longest active skid in the country.

The UA (0-8, 0-5 Pac-12) has won five straight over the Golden Bears, who may end up playing without some key contributors after the school announced Thursday that “multiple” football players are in COVID-19 protocol and won’t play.

According to DraftKings Sportsbook Cal (3-5, 2-3) was listed as high as a 12-point favorite before the line was taken off the board as oddsmakers await further info about Cal’s COVID situation.

Here’s what to watch for when Arizona and Cal tangle in Tucson under the noonday sun:

Staying aggressive, but smart

Will Plummer is coming off the best performance of his college career, throwing for 264 yards and rushing for 31 including a 16-yard TD run. Most importantly, though, he did not turn the ball over despite taking more deep shots than in any other game this season.

Of the 34 passes Plummer attempted at USC, 13 were for targets that were 10 yards downfield or further. He’d made 29 throws that long in his previous 92 attempts, completing nine, and against the Trojans he was 8 of 13 for 180 yards.

“There’s different stuff we do every week based on the opponent, but there’s been plenty of opportunities all season long to take shots downfield,” coach Jedd Fisch said. “It’s just a matter of, are you going to pull the trigger, do you feel good enough? Is that one-on-one matchup something you’re comfortable throwing? Do you feel comfortable with where they’re going to break, where they’re going to end up, where they’re going to be? And I think what happened was he just just felt a little more confident and comfortable and let the ball go out on time. Leave his hand a little bit earlier. And trust where the receiver was going to end up rather than wait to see him open and feel the need to check it down because of pressure some other reason.”

Fisch said Plummer has “looked better this week than he did last week” so far in practice, likely building off the confidence he gained against USC. Now comes making sure he doesn’t get overconfident. One way to do that is to remain smart with his decisions, particularly when deciding whether to scramble or not.

“Based on our quarterback depth situation, we have to be a little more cautious about exposing him to hits,” Fisch said. “So we have to be probably a little bit less anxious to run and a little bit more anxious to throw the ball away for reasons that, you know, we can’t lose Will. I love quarterbacks that give you yards with their feet and I love quarterbacks that can get your first downs with their feet. And he did a great job obviously getting us a touchdown with his feet. So we’re not going to stop, that but we just kind of emphasize sliding, which he did a good job of this past week, going out of bounds which he did a good job this past week, and then not taking any unnecessary hits.”

Plummer figures to be on the field for every offensive snap since Jamarye Joiner, who has been going back and forth between wide receiver and the backfield as a Wildcat quarterback, did not practice prior to Thursday because of a right knee injury.

“I’d say it’s closer to doubtful than questionable,” Fisch said of Joiner. “He has not been able to practice yet, but if we can get him to run around a little bit today, maybe we can get him up to a game-time decision.”

More and more of Fisch’s guys in the mix

Arizona has started 37 different players on offense or defense this season, 12 of which were not with the program prior to Fisch and his staff coming on board. Another five have seen action in games, including a pair of freshmen wide receivers who are quickly climbing up the depth chart.

Dorian Singer and Anthony Simpson combined for 43 offensive snaps at USC, with Singer making three catches for 65 yards. Singer is a walk-on that Arizona added in the spring, while Simpson is one of just two high school players the UA signed after Fisch was hired.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if they both started this week,” Fisch said. I think we’ll have to see exactly how it’ll all play itself out based on a couple guys here there, but I would expect them to have very impactful roles these final four weeks, and assuming they stay healthy and continue to improve, I would expect them to have some pretty big games hopefully moving forward. I love the way they compete. I love the way they play. They’re going to be really good players for us in the future for sure.”

Other program newcomers who have seen their playing time go up significantly as the year has gone on include tight end Alex Lines, who has started seven games and is now the No. 1 guy at that position, defensive lineman Leevel Tatum III and linebacker Jerry Roberts.

Roberts, a transfer from Bowling Green, has started the last three games at Mike linebacker after only playing 14 total snaps over the first five games.

“The best thing I can say about Jerry Roberts is when his number was called, he answered the bell,” defensive coordinator Don Brown said. He’s played in a couple key games where we’ve played our best football. That’s where I’m very pleased, he jumped right in, played at a very capable level. He’s not perfect. That’s why you coach them. But he’s certainly, you know, been a nice surprise for us.”

An opponent in a similar boat

Arizona has either led or been within one score of its opponent in six of eight games yet still doesn’t have a victory. Cal hasn’t been nearly as unfortunate, but it does have its fair share of near-miss performances.

Four of the Bears’ five losses are by seven or fewer points, including an overtime loss at Washington in which Cal running back Damien Moore lost a fumble at the 1-yard line and a loss at Oregon where it was stuffed on 4th-and-goal from the 2 on the final play of the game.

“Their record could flip very quickly,” Fisch said. “They’re a good football team.”

Cal leads the Pac-12 in time of possession, holding the ball for 31:29 per game overall and 33:17 in league contests. Arizona is fourth in Pac-12 games, at 31:09.

The Bears are a few spots ahead of the UA in most offensive categories, but on the defensive side they are second in run defense (121.9 yards allowed per game) compared to 11th for Arizona (187.8) while the UA is much better defending the pass at 2nd (193.5 per game) than Cal (9th, 244.6).

Beating the heat

Gametime temperature at kickoff is expected to be around 88 degrees, about nine degrees above normal for this time of year. Fisch acknowledged the heat could impact his team’s game plan when it has the ball.

“I think it’ll really be about efficiency,” he said. “The longer you can stay on the field, the better. Now how you do that, if that’s by plays or by minutes, it’s more for us as you really want to have an efficient system when you’re in the heat.

“We embrace the heat, we’re the ones in Arizona, we’re the ones at home and noon is a beautiful time to go play an 88-degree game.”

Earlier this season Fisch said his team wore white jerseys at home to help deal with the heat in September. It’s a “Red Out” for the fans, but whether Arizona goes with white or blue tops has not been announced.

Welcome to the Ring of Honor

In addition to Homecoming, Arizona will be adding former standouts Earl Mitchell and Brooks Reed into its Ring of Honor. Mitchell played at the UA from 2006-09, beginning as a running back before moving to defensive line, while Reed played on the D-line from 2007-10.

Mitchell and Reed, both of whom went on to play in the NFL, were expected to speak to the team at Friday’s practice

“I have much respect for both of them, and the type of players they are,” Fisch said. “Two very good defensive players. We’d love to have guys like that and hopefully have Pac-12 (all-conference) players moving forward on the defensive side.”