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What we learned from Arizona’s season-opening loss to BYU

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

LAS VEGAS — The Arizona Wildcats (0-1) kicked off the Jedd Fisch era with a 24-16 loss to BYU on Saturday at Allegiant Stadium.

Our full recap can be found here, Jedd Fisch’s postgame reaction can be found here, and below are some additional takeaways.

This loss was different

Arizona’s losing streak now sits at 13 games, the longest among FBS teams. This loss wasn’t like the others, though. The Wildcats were competitive and showed flashes of brilliance in all three phases of the game. That’s what you want to see in Fisch’s first season.

Example: the Wildcats trailed 21-3 midway through the third quarter and instead of the wheels falling off like they so often did in the Kevin Sumlin era, they battled back to make it a one-score game by the end of the period.

That was thanks to a punt that was downed at the 1, a tackle for loss by Treshaun Hayward that resulted in a safety, a sweet punt return by Tayvian Cunningham (more on that later), and a 25-yard touchdown pass just four plays later.

“That was a true complementary football part of the game,” Fisch said. “I learned that our guys are going to fight to the very end.”

In years past, Arizona players often seemed dismayed in their postgame interviews. Like they had no hope. Neither Gunner Cruz, Michael Wiley nor Anthony Pandy gave off that vibe Saturday. Pandy actually cracked a few jokes.

Fisch said the mood of the postgame locker room was that of a team that can’t wait to practice Monday and move on to the San Diego State game. I believe him.

“This team has really bought into the process of winning, and we have a great coaching staff in place that is going to get us there,” Cruz said. “I’m excited to see where we’ll go in the next couple of weeks because it’s definitely trending positive.”

Gunner Cruz is QB1

So much for a two-quarterback system. Cruz played all but nine snaps. He started slow but eventually found some rhythm, connecting on 13 of 15 passes at one point to be 15 for 20 for 123 yards at halftime. Fisch said he was going to reinsert Will Plummer for the second drive of the second half but decided to let Cruz cook.

Arizona was trailing the entire second half, so that meant Cruz had to throw a lot. The Washington State transfer finished 34 for 45 for 336 yards, a touchdown and an interception. That’s the most passing yards by a UA QB since Khalil Tate had 404 against Colorado in October 2019 (AKA the last time Arizona won a game).

Fisch thought Cruz “did a lot of things that were pretty good” but lamented the four sacks he took. Fisch attributed most of them to slow decision-making rather than poor pass protection.

“Two knocked us out of field-goal range, two out of possible go-for-it situations. We can’t do that,” Fisch said. “We had a couple guys open in the end zone, wound up having a missed read here or missed read there, which we need to improve upon.”

Arizona could have made it a one-score game midway through the fourth quarter, but Cruz was intercepted after driving to the BYU 35. He lofted a deep pass into double coverage and it was easily picked off by a BYU safety in the end zone.

The Cougars took over with 5:54 left, up 24-13.

“We called a shot play and we were expecting a lot of Cover 2,” Cruz said. “They started two-high safety. They rolled the cover three on the snap and I thought the safety was coming down to bite on the route that we had. ... It was just a bad read. Gotta be better than that and obviously that had a big impact on the game.”

Not nearly enough to drop him from the depth chart, though. Cruz will start against San Diego State next week.

“If you’re going to go out there and have a 141 quarterback rating in your first game you’ve ever started, it’ll be tough not to play Gunner right now,” Fisch said. “Going to a neutral site with 50-something thousand people in an NFL stadium ... and to be able to go down and still battle and battle and battle, I feel really good about the way Gunner played tonight.”

Jedd Fisch likes to gamble

In true Vegas fashion, Fisch took some big risks and they paid off. Sort of. Twice in the first half, the Wildcats went for it on fourth down deep in their own territory. Both times they converted with a Cruz QB sneak.

“I was not going to go for it, but when I looked out there and I saw that we had to go that far and I know how hard our team practices, I said there’s no way they’re gonna stop us,” Fisch said. “We got a 6-4 quarterback who weighs over 230 pounds. If we can’t get that, it’s a problem.”

In the fourth quarter, Arizona ran it from shotgun on 4th and 2 at the BYU 13 rather than trying a field goal that would have cut the deficit to 21-16. Michael Wiley plunged for three yards for the first down.

What’s disappointing is none of those gutsy fourth-down calls actually led to points. All three drives stalled out. Still, Fisch’s fearlessness wasn’t meaningless.

“I think first and foremost it shows that we have a lot of trust in our defense,” Cruz said.

It shows that “we’re fighters and we’re not giving up,” Wiley added.

The defense was solid, but not opportunistic

Some encouraging defensive stats: Arizona held BYU to 368 yards, 5.8 yards per play, and 3 for 12 on third down. UA also had eight tackles for loss and forced three straight punts to begin the game.

The not-so-good stats: Arizona didn’t create any turnovers and only had one sack. Those are two areas the Wildcats are supposed to improve in Don Brown’s blitz-heavy defense. Unfortunately, they did not generate the kind of quarterback pressure they hoped.

And when Arizona did try to bring the heat, they got burned. One blitz vacated the whole left side of the field for BYU QB Jaren Hall to scramble for 39 yards. Another left Neil Pau’u open down the middle for a 67-yard touchdown catch. He beat Malik Hausman deep and there was no safety help. All Hall had to do was put enough air under the ball for Pau’u to run underneath it.

It’s obvious who Arizona’s playmakers are

Speaking of creating big plays, Arizona’s offense revolved around five guys—running backs Michael Wiley and Drake Anderson, plus receivers Stanley Berryhill III, Tayvian Cunningham and BJ Casteel. They combined for 99 of Arizona’s 129 rushing yards and 308 of Arizona’s 345 receiving yards. Tight ends Alex Lines and Bryce Wolma accounted for the other 37.

Arizona’s playcalling was fairly conservative, highlighted by short passes that put their playmakers in space.

“We have a lot of playmakers out there that can make stuff happen when you get the ball in their hands,” Cruz said.

Havrisik’s inconsistency haunted the Wildcats again

This game was a microcosm of Havrisik’s rollercoaster career. He made two of his four field goals, missing from 31 and 44 yards and connecting from 28 and 37 yards.

The misses were crucial. After Arizona finally put together a nice drive, Havrisik missed a 32-yard field goal that would have a cut the deficit to 6-3 late in the second quarter. BYU capitalized on the momentum shift by scoring a TD five plays later.

Havrisik then missed a 44-yarder in the third quarter that would have cut the deficit to 21-16 early in the fourth. BYU wound up kicking a field goal on its next drive to take a 24-13 lead—a six-point swing.

The good news is Havrisik is leaving Vegas on a high note. He drilled a 37-yarder with 49 seconds left in the fourth. It didn’t affect the outcome of the game because Arizona failed to recover the ensuing onside kick, but it should help his confidence moving forward.

“When he lined up for the last field goal, I said ‘you’re gonna make it like you do every day in practice,’” Fisch said. “We practice field goals Tuesdays and Wednesdays every day. He makes them. I said, ‘you’re gonna make these and you’re probably not gonna miss a field for the rest of the year.’ So, just keep it moving. These things happen. ... He knows his job and he’s gonna do a great job at it.”

Kyle Ostendorp proved me wrong

Based on last season’s stats, it was surprising that Ostendorp beat out Tyler Loop for the starting punting job this fall. Now we see why. Three of Ostendorp’s five punts were downed inside the 20, including the one he plopped at the 1-yard line that turned into a safety. He also boomed a punt 52 yards.

Tayvian Cunningham has hops

Cunningham also runs track at the UA, and his athleticism was on full display when he hurdled a BYU defender in the open field.

That highlight-reel punt return came after the safety and set up a short field for Cruz and company to work with.

The over is looking good right now

Oddmakers set Arizona’s over/under win total at 2.5, which seems low.

Beating NAU is a virtual lock and San Diego State looks vulnerable after struggling against New Mexico State.

Meanwhile, the Pac-12 is off to a rough start with Cal, Washington and Washington State all losing to non-Power 5 teams. (And Oregon State and Stanford lost to middling Power 5 teams, but they’re not on Arizona’s schedule.)

Of Arizona’s 11 remaining games, only the road tilts at USC and Oregon seem unwinnable. The rest they should have a fighting chance. And, again, that’s all you can ask for in this first year of this rebuild.