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What to watch for when Arizona hosts NAU seeking to snap 14-game losing streak

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The Arizona Wildcats get another chance—and possibly the best one—to end their long losing streak when they host the NAU Lumberjacks on Saturday night.

Arizona (0-2) has lost 14 in a row, the longest active skid in FBS, while NAU (0-2) has been outscored 76-23 in its games this season.

Here’s what to keep an eye on when Arizona and NAU meet for the 11th time since 2002.

When there’s a Will is there a win?

Arizona will have a different starting quarterback than against BYU or San Diego State, with Will Plummer taking over for Gunner Cruz. This will be Plummer’s second career start, doing so against Colorado at home last December.

That game started out pretty well, with the UA taking a 13-0 lead on the Buffaloes, only to lose 24-13 for an 11th consecutive loss. Plummer was 19 of 32 for 154 yards with an interception as well as nine carries for 54 yards.

Plummer came on in relief of Cruz midway through the third quarter against SDSU, completing 8 of 17 passes for 109 yards and his first career TD pass, a 7-yard throw to Tayvian Cunningham.

“I thought he did a very nice job when he got in there,” Jedd Fisch said on Monday. “He went in there, he was tough.”

Fisch said Plummer has steadily improved since the spring, when he had to adapt to playing under center rather than exclusively in the shotgun.

“I think it’s come down, for Will, knowledge is power, as they say,” Fisch said Thursday. “And the more he became comfortable with what we were trying to accomplish, the more he felt more comfortable understanding and more he felt that he could see a defense and have more familiarity with the play calling. He became more and more comfortable with executing the plays. I think each day this week he became more and more familiar and really has become pretty good at being able to talk the game.”

Fisch said his goal is for Plummer to play the entire game—“I think we need to get some continuity back there,” he said—but that if Arizona does go to a second quarterback it figures to be Jordan McCloud. The South Florida transfer was elevated from the scout team this week and has taken the majority of the second-team snaps in practice.

As for Cruz?

“It’s just hard to get three quarterbacks ready for a game,” Fisch said.

Start fast, or at least not slow

Arizona fell behind 21-0 after less than eight minutes against SDSU, a familiar occurrence over the past few seasons. It trailed BYU 14-0 late in the second quarter the week before.

The Wildcats have been outscored 49-10 in the first half this season, putting themselves in a position to where they have to adjust their gameplan to play catchup rather than have what Fisch has referred to as “a normal game” from start to finish.

“The first seven minutes of the game (against SDSU) was bad,” he said. “The next 53 minutes it was 17-14. I mean that’s the truth of the game, you can’t let a game get out of hand. But what we need to do is we need to make sure is that we continue to just play well and recognize that each opportunity, that each moment we have is going to be a moment to get better. And we have to get out of the rut of losing. We can’t ever accept it.”

Avoiding another bad start, particularly on offense, can also help Plummer settle into a groove, Fisch said.

“The biggest thing would be to play a normal game and not get caught up in a situation where the score is dictating some play calling,” he said. “I think if we just play with a good rhythm and timing, trust the plays, trust the receivers, trust the blocking scheme. The more trust you have, the better you play. Hey, just trust me. Trust the calls, just the blocking, and trust the receivers. It’s okay to throw to where they’re going to be, you don’t have to wait to see them get there.”

FUNdamentals

Training camp officially ended for Arizona almost a month ago, yet after a woeful tackling effort against SDSU and poor blocking in both games, Fisch said the Wildcats spent a lot of time on simple fundamentals related to those integral parts of the game.

“The focus is to understand our number one deal is, before you learn how to win you have to learn how not to lose,” he said. “And for us right now it’s a matter of blocking and tackling. That’s fundamentals, and that’s where our main focus is, and has been all week long. We scrimmaged (Wednesday), we went out there and tackled in our stadium. We went out there and had some live drills, live periods. I think you need to do that sometimes. When you’re building something, you know, part of that build is to make sure that fundamentals never get forgotten while you’re doing scheme.”

Pro Football Focus gave Arizona a tackling grade of 53.8 (out of 100) against SDSU, down from 75.8 against BYU, while its pass-blocking grade has been below 56 both games.

No looking ahead

FCS schools traditionally pick off a couple FBS teams each season, but this year those upsets have been much more common. In just the first two weeks they have eight wins over FBS opponents, the most since 2017 when they pulled off nine upsets.

The Pac-12 hasn’t been immune to this chaos, with Washington losing 13-7 at home to Montana on Sept. 4.

Arizona hasn’t lost to a team not currently at the FBS level since 1961, when it well to West Texas A&M. The Wildcats have beaten NAU by an average of 45-15 in their last 10 meetings, all UA victories, scoring 204 points in the last three meetings.

NAU has three wins all-time against FBS foes, most recently in 2018 against a UTEP school that was riding a 12-game skid that eventually got to 20, so never say never.

“We’re not overlooking anybody, that’s for sure,” Fisch said, noting he has addressed the team about recent upsets. “We talked about Jacksonville State Florida State, we talked about Montana against Washington, we talked about Arkansas versus Texas. BYU versus Utah. But we also talked about us against BYU, and how that was supposed to be such a big upset. We missed two field goals, we lose by a touchdown and we have four possessions inside the 12-yard line and we walk away with six points, what would have happened if? Would we have been the people that they all talked about having this huge upset. We never thought it was gonna be upset. We thought we were equally matched and played really good football. So we try to remind our team about, at any given time, a team is gonna come in and beat a team and we’re gonna look at it same way every time we play. We don’t have the right to overlook anybody, and we have to find a way to play our best football.”

Some potential season (or college) debuts

All signs point to Jamarye Joiner making his 2021 debut after missing the first two games—as well as all of the preseason—recovering from foot surgery. Joiner has dressed each game but hasn’t played, and he was expected to get in against SDSU but Fisch said he didn’t feel comfortable putting him out there in a lopsided game.

Fisch did say that, while he wants to get Joiner back in action, that means having to take snaps away from other receivers like starters Stanley Berryhill III, Tayvian Cunningham and BJ Casteel and backups Boobie Curry and Jalen Johnson.

“Hopefully we can have more than 60 plays, we had only 60 plays against San Diego State, we had 88 against BYU,” he said. “If we can get more in that 70- to 75-play range, which would be the ideal goal for us, that would enable us to be able to play more than three or four wide receivers, and get a chance to get a little bit more of a rotation and see more bodies.”

The potential for the game being out of hand in the second half—hopefully in a positive way!—means we could see quite a few new faces get on the field. Arizona has used only 63 players in its first two games, with quite a few scholarship athletes yet to see action.

Only three of the 18 non-transfers Arizona signed in the 2021 class have played, per participation reports: RB Stevie Rocker Jr., LB Matthew ‘Mojo’ Weerts and DB Anthony Simpson.

Shall we storm?

To storm or not to storm, that is the question.

Assuming Arizona beats NAU, putting an end to its 14-game losing streak, there’s a nonzero chance some fans (read: students) may try to storm the field in celebration. It happened two weeks ago at Kansas, when it had a field-storming after beating South Dakota to end a 13-game losing streak and hand Lance Leipold a win in his first game at the school.

Asked about the possibility, Fisch played it smart and didn’t take a stance.

“I don’t think I’m supposed to support that, so, I think I’ll stay out of that one, and kind of go from there,” he said. “I’m in favor of winning. Whatever the results are after that, I guess that would be the result. I’ll tell you what I’m for, I’m for our team celebrating a victory at some point in time here soon. We’ve worked very hard to try to get better, at trying to improve. So what I would love to see our team be able to do is be able to see all of that hard work end in a positive. And really the only positive would be ending with more points than the other team. Moral victories are not for us.”

If Arizona wins, expect the players to show some real emotion afterwards.

“I mean, I think everybody’s pretty pissed,” Plummer said after Saturday’s loss. “We’ve been on this losing streak for a while now. It’s getting really tired, it’s getting really old. I think the kids on our team are really pissed off, and we’re ready to come back, ready to work. We know that nobody’s going to feel sorry for us.”