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What we learned from Arizona’s loss to Oregon

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NCAA Football: Arizona at Oregon Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Wildcats’ losing streak was extended to 16 games on Saturday, as they fell to the No. 3-ranked Oregon Ducks 41-19 in Eugene.

Our recap can be found here, UA head coach Jedd Fisch’s postgame comments can be watched/read here, and below are some additional takeaways.

The Jordan McCloud-led offense was mostly good—except for those ghastly turnovers

Arizona’s offense outgained Oregon 435-399, went 11 for 19 on third and fourth down, and found the balance it is looking for but hadn’t achieved till Saturday, racking up 233 passing yards and 202 rushing yards. This was the first time all season that Arizona’s offensive line was able to consistently pave running lanes. Weird that it happened against a usually stout Oregon defensive line.

Arizona only trailed the Ducks by five entering the fourth quarter, and the final score doesn’t reflect how even the game actually was. Oregon pulled away because Jordan McCloud threw five interceptions. Four of them were extremely costly. Two happened in the red zone, one gave Oregon the ball deep in Arizona territory and eventually resulted in a field goal, and another was returned for a touchdown for the game’s final points.

If Arizona avoids even just a couple of those momentum-shifting plays, they would have had a real chance to pull off the upset. And considering where this team was just a week ago, that’s a step in the right direction.

“Our guys came out today and there was a lot of good football that was played tonight,” Fisch said. “Really excited and proud of the step forward that we took in a lot of areas, but one of the things that we talk about all the time is before you learn how to win, you have to keep from losing. And when you turn the ball over five times and commit nine penalties that’s what’s gonna happen.”

McCloud earned another start—and should benefit from the bye week

Obviously the turnovers cannot be ignored, but other than that, McCloud played well enough for Fisch to name him the starter moving forward.

Because if you do take away the five interceptions, McCloud completed 21 of 31 passes for 233 yards and a touchdown. He also rushed for 64 yards on just nine carries, making good use of zone reads and his scrambling ability.

McCloud kept the chains moving and his mobility and quick release aided a UA offensive line that has struggled in pass protection this season.

The Wildcats are off next week, so McCloud now gets two weeks to prep for the UCLA game on Oct. 9. The hope is that he can use that time to build more continuity and cut back on the turnovers.

It’s not like those have been a big problem for him before. McCloud only threw 10 interceptions (compared to 22 touchdowns) in 17 starts at USF.

“The biggest concern I had going into the season was he only got here in training camp, and we didn’t have him in the spring like we had the other two (quarterbacks),” Fisch said. “He just had the poise to keep on battling. He was never afraid to throw the football. I’m sure he’s very upset right now, and I hate that for him but those things happen, and we’re going to grow from it and get better. But he’s our best player at that position and that’s why we played him.”

Arizona has to win the turnover battle to have a chance

On the other side of the ball, Arizona’s defense needs to be more opportunistic to end this losing streak. A perfect example: Trevon Mason tipped a pass in the air on the final play of the second quarter, but the ball slipped through JB Brown’s fingers. Had Brown been able to intercept it, he may have scored, which would have trimmed Oregon’s lead to 24-17 at the half.

So far, the Wildcats have a minus-7 turnover margin this season, with all three of their takeaways coming against NAU.

“I liked the way we controlled the ball in terms of time of possession—that’s a big thing for us—and if we could be physical, get negative plays, tackles for losses, and be able to run the football, good things are going to come,” Fisch said. “But right now we saw the standard in the Pac-12.”

Slow starts continue to haunt Arizona on the road

Arizona dug itself into an early 10-0 hole by surrendering a 63-yard touchdown pass on the third play of the game, then giving up a short field goal after McCloud threw a pick on the offense’s first play from scrimmage.

Nightmare starts like that have been all too common for the Wildcats in recent years. Here’s some of the margins they have faced on the road:

  • 0-38 at Houston (2018)
  • 0-35 at Utah (2018)
  • 0-10 at UCLA (2018)
  • 0-14 at Washington State (2018)
  • 0-14 at Hawaii (2019)
  • 0-34 at USC (2019)
  • 0-21 at Oregon (2019)
  • 0-37 at Washington (2020)
  • 0-10 at Oregon (2021)

To Arizona’s credit, it bounced back from Saturday’s slow start to make it a competitive game. That usually didn’t happen under the previous coaching staff.

The run defense is a glaring problem

The Ducks gashed UA on the ground just like San Diego State and BYU did. Oregon running backs CJ Verdell and Troy Dye combined for 137 yards on just 16 carries. That’s 8.6 yards per tote.

San Diego State’s Greg Bell rushed for 125 yards on 17 carries and BYU’s Tyler Allgeier tallied 94 yards on 17 carries.

Fortunately for Arizona, the Ducks didn’t feed their ‘backs as much as they should have. Quarterback Anthony Brown threw 21 passes despite only completing 10 of them. He also had 12 carries, one more than Verdell and seven more than Dye.

The Colorado game is looking mighty winnable

Arizona’s best chance to snap this historic losing streak could be Oct. 16 in Boulder.

The Buffaloes have lost three straight since beating Northern Colorado in their opener, and their offense is egregious. Colorado has only scored 20 points over its last three games.

The Buffs lost to ASU 35-13 on Saturday after losing Minnesota 30-0 the previous week. The same Minnesota team that lost to Bowling Green on Saturday.