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What to watch for when Arizona faces San Diego State in home opener

arizona-wildcats-football-sdsu-aztecs-preview-sellout-defense-sacks-fisch-debut-2021-analysis Photo by Jeff Speer/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats open their home schedule on Saturday night when they host San Diego State.

It will be the first time the UA has had fans inside Arizona Stadium for a regular season game since November 2019. The Wildcats played in front of a crowd of more than 54,000 in Las Vegas last weekend when they lost 24-16 to BYU, their 13th consecutive setback.

Here’s what to watch for when Arizona takes on the Aztecs:

Building off the opener

All things considered, Arizona’s season-opening loss to BYU was a step in the right direction. After falling behind 21-3 the Wildcats battled back to within one score, something last year’s team would have never been able to accomplish.

But any progress made in the first game is irrelevant if it isn’t followed up in the second outing.

Take 2020, for example. After falling to USC in the final seconds of the opener last November, the Wildcats went to Washington with plenty of momentum and positive vibes. And then proceeded to fall behind 37-0, setting the stage for the rest of a winless season.

“I would think that we would improve from this week to next week, next week to the following week,” Fisch said on Monday. “All of us will get better. All of us will look to see what we can call better, what we can do better. And if we continue to improve, we’ll have a chance. If we continue to know how not to lose games, we’ll start winning a lot more of them.”

The UA won the coin toss against BYU last week but deferred to the second half, choosing to start on defense. If the Wildcats pick the right side this time, look for them to take the ball first.

The quarterback rotation, and if it still exists

Rather than name a starting quarterback after training camp, Fisch instead said both Gunner Cruz and Will Plummer would play. That ended up being the case against BYU, though Plummer only appeared in one series and was subbed out for Cruz on a 4th-and-1 play.

It looks like that will be the scenario again this Saturday, with Cruz starting but Plummer getting in at some point.

“I think we’ll probably have a spot for Will to play a little bit,” Fisch said. “I think there’s some value to be able to sit a series and look to see what’s going on defensively. Have a deep breath and say, okay, I see what this play was called.”

Cruz was 34 of 45 for 336 yards with a touchdown and an interception, helping Arizona put up the most passing yards of any team in the Pac-12. He also took four sacks, though, three of which caused potential scoring drives to stall.

San Diego State had five sacks last week against New Mexico State, and the Aztecs had 20 in eight games a year ago.

Speaking of SDSU

Their 28-10 home win over NMSU might not have been impressive on paper, but Fisch isn’t discounting what the Aztecs are capable of. SDSU has been a Pac-12 killer, winning five of its last six matchups with teams from the conference including a sweep of ASU in 2017-18.

Defense is SDSU’s calling card. Only once since 2013 has it not finished in the top 20 nationally in total defense, ending up 21st in 2018, and a year ago it allowed only 17.8 points per game after yielding 12.2 in 2019.

“They were ninth last year in the nation in terms of blitz percentage,” Fisch said. “They were second in stunt percentage. You’re going to get a ton of movement, you’re going to get a lot of activity. They’re aggressive and they’ve got really good players. Their head coach (Brady Hoke) is a defensive line coach by trade.”

NMSU threw for 326 yards but that came on 56 attempts, and SDSU intercepted three passes while recording five sacks.

Offensively, Fisch said SDSU is a “run-first operation” as evidenced by its 37 run plays against 26 dropbacks. It averaged 6.26 yards per carry, 7.0 when not counting sacks, while quarterback Jordon Brookshire was just 6 of 19 for 76 yards.

Swarming in the Desert Swarm unis

Arizona officially unveiled its updated Desert Swarm-era uniforms in Las Vegas, going with white jerseys and blue pants with white helmet. But the home opener is when we’ll get to see the true iconic look from the program’s heyday, with blue jerseys and white pants to go with the white helmet and its red-and-blue stripes.

Sure would be great for the Wildcat defense to pay tribute to that era with a Desert Swarm-esque performance, especially since the last time they wore those jerseys—for the 2019 Homecoming game against Oregon State—they were torched for 572 yards and 56 points.

If the opener is any indication, Arizona’s defense is much improved and figures to only get better with more time in Don Brown’s system.

Brown said Tuesday his unit ranked fourth in the country in missed tackles in Week 1, per Pro Football Focus. The 368 total yards allowed were the fewest by Arizona since the ASU game to end the 2019 season and fewer than all but three games in the Kevin Sumlin era.

“My assessment is we ran to the ball pretty darn well for the first time out, which usually correlates that the guys have a clue what they’re doing, so that was a positive,” Brown said.

If you hype it, will they come?

Fisch spent part of his Thursday evening visiting UA fraternities, handing out #ItsPersonal gear and working the rooms in yet another effort to fill Arizona Stadium for the home opener. Will that, and all of his other sales pitches, both public and private, lead to his much-coveted sellout?

Probably not. Athletic director Dave Heeke said Thursday that a little over 35,000 tickets had been sold as of that morning, though he expected a “very robust walk-up crowd.”

Arizona Stadium’s current capacity is 50,800. In 2019, the last season with fans, the UA averaged 39,492 fans with 40,741 for the home opener against NAU. It drew 47,933 for the Washington game, which was the start of the 13-game skid.

“I am hopeful that it is a sold out house,” Fisch said Thursday. “We only need 5 percent of (Pima County’s) population to come and we’ll be sold out.”

Sellout or not, expect an energetic crowd simply for the fact there’s allowed to be one at Arizona Stadium for the first time since November 2019.

“This is gonna be electric,” receiver Stanley Berryhill III said. “Home field advantage is everything. I think when we do get all of our fans back here it’s going to be amazing. We want to put on a show for the fans and we want to give the fans something to watch.”