Before Arizona even played a game this season, expectations were all over the map. A productive offseason was set to give way to a pretty rough schedule, and it was fair to wonder if the Cats would surpass the 2.5 wins the oddsmakers predicted.
Six games into — or halfway through — the season and the over has already paid out.
Jedd Fisch’s team is 3-3, with a 1-2 mark in the Pac-12. It’s a perfectly average record, though that mark in some ways belies how the team has performed.
Arizona has won comfortably twice, lost by multiple scores thrice and otherwise looked like an improved-but-flawed outfit as it continues on with the toughest part of its schedule.
There are six games left on the schedule, with Arizona needing to win three if it is to reach a bowl game for the first time since 2017.
Do the Wildcats have three more wins in them? Probably not.
But just because the prospect of a bowl game is likely unrealistic does not mean there are not still goals that can be met over the rest of the 2022 season. So as the team prepares for the season’s second half, which as of now features games with three AP Top 25 teams and is evenly split with regards to games at home and on the road, let’s break down what we’d like to see.
An offense that can adapt and finish strong
For many reasons, Arizona’s offense is much-improved over last season. The team ranks sixth overall in Pac-12 in total offense, with the team sitting at second in passing, eighth in rushing and seventh in scoring.
What we’ve seen is proof that yes, Jedd Fisch can design and coach a quality offense. But as the rest of the league gets more film on his group, will the coach be able to match wits with his opponents and keep the ball moving?
If the Wildcats can at least maintain this level of production the rest of the way, that would be fine. But if they can improve — and there’s reason to believe individuals certain players will — it will be yet another feather in Fisch’s cap.
And if guys like Jacob Cowing and Jordan Morgan continue their current level of play, the NFL could come calling. While it would be sad to see them go, there’s nothing wrong with sending guys to the pros.
A QB that continues to grow
During Arizona’s loss to Oregon it was revealed that Jordan McCloud had left the team. His departure is a hit to the team’s QB depth, but makes some sense. Whereas last year he was the best option the team had at one point, this year he was never better than third.
That’s a good thing.
Jayden de Laura has had his inconsistencies, but he’s proven to be good enough to lead the team. Behind him is likely Noah Fifita, a talented freshman who has not played much (also a good thing). After that, who knows — hopefully we never find out.
Ideally de Laura will stay healthy because he gives the Cats their best chance to win. Far from a finished product, it would be nice to see his continued improvement. Now, what does that look like?
Better accuracy on deep passes would be nice. More consistent decision-making would be lovely. A better understanding of when and how to use his legs is a must.
One of the more underrated aspects of last season was how Will Plummer improved over the course of his time as the starter. Should de Laura follow a similar pattern, the Wildcats will leave this season (and possibly enter the next one) with one of the best QBs in the conference.
A defense that at least puts up a fight
This is a tricky one, because like the offense last year, a lack of talent may be holding this group back. But even still, you’d have to think coaching can help a bit. Right?
Johnny Nansen is more proven as a recruiter than he is a coordinator, so we may not see his true value until signing day. But until then, he has six games to devise a scheme that can at least in part work around his group’s flaws and find some way to stop opponents more than a few times each game.
As of now Arizona is last in the conference in total defense, 11th in scoring defense, 11th against the run and fifth against the pass. The last of those numbers is partly due to the team’s solid secondary, but it’s no doubt aided by the fact that teams generally don’t have to throw the ball against the Cats.
It’s up to Nansen to find the right mix of players and devise a way for them to be good enough to give the offense a chance to win games. No one is asking for Desert Swarm, but a handful of stops and even a turnover a two per game would be terrific.
A team that keeps battling
One of the most impressive aspects about the 2021 Wildcats was the fact that they simply did not quit. Despite the team’s record or even the scoreboard, they continued to play hard until the clock reached all zeros.
That was a testament to Fisch and his staff, but also the players themselves. With a stretch of games that could put the team on a five-game losing streak before it returns home to play Washington State, keeping that same mindset will be crucial.
Arizona is less talented than every team left on its schedule save ASU, and at best it’s about even with the Sun Devils. Bad plays will happen. Losses will happen. Playing hard should still happen. It must happen.
Youth that sets the table for the future
In a recent press conference Fisch surmised that his team is “starting more freshmen than any team in the country.” Whether that’s actually the case or not, it is true that the team is relying on a good many young players.
While that’s not great for this year, it could absolutely pave the way for success in the next one. Arizona has already gotten contributions from Tetairoa McMillan, Speedy Luke, Jonah Coleman, Keyan Burnett, Fifita and Jonah Savaiinaea on offense, while Deuce Davis, Jacob Manu, Ta’ita’i Uiagalelei and Ephesians Prysock have earned snaps on defense, and it would be great to see them all do more — while being joined on the field by other members of the 2022 recruiting class.
That’s not to say Arizona should play freshmen just for the sake of playing freshmen. Fisch has already said the best players will play, indicating that snaps will be earned, not given. Hopefully the team’s younger players prove worthy of more snaps. Them doing so would go a long way toward feeling very good about next season and beyond.
And of course, beating ASU
Arizona figures to be underdogs in each of its games the rest of the way, except perhaps in the Territorial Cup. Even if the Cats are dogs in that one, there will be many who expect the home team to win.
This rivalry has gone the wrong way each of the last five years, with it going very wrong in 2020. Arizona should have won in both 2017 and 2018 — it was the better team both years — and had every reason to lose each of the last three.
But not this one.