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No reason Arizona can’t continue to be competitive in Jedd Fisch’s first season

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Good Sam Vegas Kickoff Classic - Brigham Young v Arizona Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Shortly after Arizona’s game against BYU ended, my good friend and Wildcat Radio co-host Brett sent me a text that perfectly summed up what we watched.

“This is the most ‘meeting expectations’ game ever, right,” he asked.

Right.

That Arizona fell to BYU was not a surprise, and for many of us the fact that they were competitive in doing so was not unexpected.

For the first time in what seems like forever the Wildcats had a legitimate chance to win a game, even having the ball in the fourth quarter down just one score. Unfortunately, Arizona’s mistakes, which included a pair of missed field goals and an interception in the end zone, proved to be too much to overcome.

Yet, the competitive nature of the team, with a sound game-plan and quality in-game coaching, likely did enough to leave most fans feeling pretty good about what transpired in Sin City.

That is, if what happened in Vegas does not stay in Vegas.

After all, many of the things we are saying now were likely said after the first game of the 2020 season, when Arizona nearly beat USC. The Cats even did something in that game they did not against BYU — have a lead — and were a couple more inches on Christian Roland-Wallace’s vertical from pulling off the upset.

As enjoyable as that game was, we all know what happened over the next four weeks.

So, as Arizona prepares for its second game of the season, we must ask if the good that we witnessed last weekend is repeatable, not just this week but going forward.

And you know what? Much of it should be.

For instance, the solid in-game coaching and the game plan that preceded it should not go anywhere. The hope was that Jedd Fisch and his staff would be an improvement over what they replaced, and that certainly appeared to be the case in Week 1. As the staff gets a better feel for its roster, the coaching should only get better.

Another thing that can continue is the defensive effort. Sure, Arizona had just one sack and did not create a turnover, but there were ample tackles for loss and white jerseys around every ball carrier. Don Brown’s group was aggressive and, for the most part, in the right places. No reason why that has to change.

The defensive front seven, as well, was very solid. There is a good amount of experience within that group and, dare I say, maybe even a little depth.

Offensively, for a guy making his first career start Gunner Cruz looked incredibly competent. There were a few bad decisions — one of which was intercepted — but otherwise he was accurate and did a good job of getting the ball to his playmakers. The majority of the QB’s issues, such as holding the ball a bit too long and not always properly diagnosing the defense, are the kind that should be minimized with more reps.

As Cruz (or the QB play in general) improves, so too should the receivers, most of whom played well against BYU, and the running game, which seemed to gain traction in the second half.

Really, none of the good last week seemed to be in any way flukey, so you would not be wrong to expect more of it in the coming weeks.

That’s not to say there was no bad or reason for concern.

The offensive line, again, struggled to pass protect. BYU didn’t need to blitz to generate pressure, and that is bad news with inexperience at QB. The depth at cornerback is also questionable, and we saw on a 67-yard TD pass what can happen when the blitz does not get home and there are breakdowns in the secondary.

Struggles along the O-line and and in the secondary are nothing new, and unfortunately those issues may not be fixed until the talent level among both groups improves.

But that’s where things are with the 2021 Arizona Wildcats. There are certain things we hoped would improve and, for the most part, they have. Yet, there are other things that, without the benefit of a system being firmly in place and a couple of recruiting cycles, will likely be a struggle.

All of that is why this season is so interesting.

Normally the team losing would bring about disappointment, and no doubt it would have been better to see Arizona leave Vegas with a victory. That they didn’t was no cause for concern and, in many ways, their performance in the loss should be reason for optimism.

Arizona was not out-classed by a solid BYU team. The rest of the Cats’ non-conference schedule is not intimidating (Arizona should be favored to win the next two) and, based on the early returns within the Pac-12, the conference slate looks less daunting than it once did.

The 2021 Cats are not expected to win much, but they should be competitive. They were exactly that in Week 1 and and there’s no reason to think they won’t be the rest of the way.