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What to watch for when Arizona opens 2021 season vs. BYU

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What seems like the most anticipated Arizona season in recent memory is finally about to begin, as the Wildcats will open the 2021 campaign on Saturday night against the BYU Cougars at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas.

The Las Vegas Kickoff Classic is scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m. MST and will be shown on ESPN.

Arizona is riding a 12-game losing streak, the longest in program history, and was 0-5 during the COVID-shortened 2020 season. BYU is coming off an 11-1 season, its most wins since 2009.

The UA holds a 12-11-1 edge over BYU in the all-time series, but the Cougars have won three of the last four including the first two legs of this 3-game series. BYU edged Arizona 18-16 in Glendale to open the 2016 season, then spoiled Kevin Sumlin’s Wildcat debut in 2018 with a 28-23 victory in Tucson. Arizona’s last victory over the Cougars came in the 2008 Las Vegas Bowl, a 31-21 triumph.

Here’s what to keep an eye out for when Arizona and BYU take the field in Sin City:

How the quarterbacks are used

Coach Jedd Fisch announced last week that both Gunner Cruz and Will Plummer would play in the opener, with Cruz being the first on the field. When Plummer plays, and how much, is anyone’s guess.

Fisch, who will be running a pro-style offense, has said he is a proponent of scripting the start of games, noting he uses that more for “information gathering” rather than to ensure he uses his best plays first. That makes it seem like Cruz and Plummer will both get series early in the game and then who plays after that will depend on how each does at the outset.

It’s entirely possible that one QB will play significantly more than the other, particularly if one starts to get hot and the offense is moving well.

“I’m not bound to put another person in if we had two touchdown drives in a row,” he said. “That’s a champagne problem.”

The battles in the trenches

Every projected starter on BYU’s offensive line is listed as at least 6-foot-5 and over 300 pounds, while the depth chart for the Cougars’ defensive line is stacked with big bodies. To say this is going to be a physical test for Arizona is an understatement.

“If we don’t come out physical, then it’s gonna be a problem,” UA defensive end Jalen Harris said on Tuesday.

Arizona’s offensive line allowed 18 sacks in just five games a year ago, while it managed just two. BYU had 26 sacks in 12 games and yielded just 12.

“I think it’s a great matchup for us,” offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Brennan Carroll said. “I love the fact that we’re going against a veteran group, just to see where we are. We’re ready to play somebody else besides Don Brown.”

Carroll said he’s confident in using up to 10 offensive linemen, though “in a perfect world” he wouldn’t go past the starting five of tackles Jordan Morgan and Paiton Fears, guards Donovan Laie and Josh Donovan and center Josh McCauley. First up after that would be veteran Edgar Burrola and freshmen Josh Baker and JT Hand.

For Brown, he has said he expects to rotate seven or eight defensive linemen and six linebackers through a variety of packages.

“As long as we play together as a front seven, guys are functioning as a unit, we have a chance to be a very, very good front seven,” Brown said.

Will the doctor be in?

Brown has developed the nickname “Dr. Blitz” over his long coaching career thanks to his fondness for bringing the house early and often. In his five seasons as Michigan’s defensive coordinator the Wolverines had 167 sacks in 58 games.

In that same time span the UA had 94 sacks in 54 games.

Will Arizona be exactly like Michigan in terms of his defensive aggression? Not necessarily. But just knowing it’s a possibility could impact what BYU does on offense.

“They know we’re coming over the walls,” Brown said. “I promise you that. And really selling them on the threat of us coming over the walls is really my concern right now.”

2018 participants

Thanks to everyone getting an extra year of eligibility due to COVID, as well as BYU’s … elder roster, quite a few players who participated in the 2018 Arizona/BYU matchup are still on their teams’ respective rosters.

Ten current UA players faced the Cougars at Arizona Stadium three years ago, with Laie and McCauley starting on the offensive line and Bryce Wolma starting at tight end. All six of the Wildcats’ captains played in that game, including Harris, who was making his collegiate debut.

“I got in there a few plays and felt their physicality,” he said. “I’m looking forward to playing them again.”

BYU’s starting center and one of its starting wide receivers in that game are first on the current depth chart, while Lopini Katoa was the Cougars’ second-leading rusher. Go back even further, to the 2016 matchup, and current BYU kicker Jake Oldroyd was true freshman at the time when he kicked the game-winning field goal.

Crowd dynamics

Arizona and BYU are expected to play in front of the largest crowd for a college sporting event in Las Vegas history, according to Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff, who on Monday tweeted that 57,000 tickets had already been sold for the game at 65,000-seat Allegiant Stadium.

If the game sells out it would be the biggest crowd to see a UA game since 70,225 were at the Los Angeles Coliseum in Nov. 2017 when USC beat the Wildcats 49-35.

How many of those fans will be wearing red, though?

While Arizona travels well, particularly for games that are within driving distance, it’s very likely the vast majority of those on hand will be supporting BYU. Provo is slightly closer to Las Vegas than Tucson, and the Cougar fans seem to love playing in Sin City.

Six of the eight most-attended Las Vegas Bowl matchups have included BYU, and in 2017 the Cougars’ trip there to play UNLV in a regular season game had the largest crowd of the season for the Runnin’ Rebels.

Fisch, ever the dreamer, is hoping for as close to 50-50 as possible.

“I’m hopeful that we’re traveling very well,” he said earlier this week. “Everybody I’ve spoken with feels really good about the way Arizona is traveling to this game. Our group likes likes being in Vegas. They like the opportunity how close it is, that they could drive to Vegas, from Arizona, from California and then, obviously, with people that live in that area. We’re hopeful we’ve got a really big crowd of Arizona Wildcats. Hopefully it’s a split stadium, I would assume they’re gonna have a big crowd as well. So we need all of the Wildcat Nation out there. If we could have a split stadium that’d be pretty awesome, kind of like the Florida-Georgia game.”