It’s easy to look at a victory like Arizona’s over UCLA as the kind of win that can change a program’s direction.
All wins are good, yes, but conference road wins against top-10 teams are on a different level. So, it made sense that head coach Jedd Fisch was asked about that very idea that the 34-28 win at the Rose Bowl may have a little extra significance.
“I just think that we’re in the middle of a build that we’ve been talking about all year round,” he answered. “We’ve said from the very beginning, I believe this is year one. I think last year when we got here, we did a lot of different things structurally just to get back to ground zero.
“And then this year, we felt like it was year one, and we’ve won four games. We would like to win two more, but we’re going to just continue to build and grow and look at getting better every week rather than focusing in necessarily on the final outcome and just know that if our team continues to get better, more recruits will want to come here. And if more recruits want to come here, our team will keep getting better.”
In other words, the win could change the program. It certainly can’t hurt.
When Fisch took over, winning was paramount. Not to take away from the obviousness of that statement, but the unproven coach needed to show that he could get the job done at what had become arguably the worst Power 5 program in the country. The Wildcats were in the midst of a historically-bad losing streak, with the last game played before Fisch’s hire being one we’d rather not talk about (but will hopefully be avenged in a couple weeks’ time).
But without any kind of substantive track record to fall back on, Fisch’s honeymoon period came with the caveat of legitimately wondering if he could get the job done.
The first season was more about fight and promise than wins, with the coach’s success on the recruiting trail providing a bit of wiggle room with regards to the win/loss record.
Selling more vision than reality, at some point the progression would have to show itself on the field.
That point is now.
If it wasn’t apparent when the team won three of its first five games, but going on the road and beating a very good team made the fact inarguable. Going on the road and beating a very good team is even more impressive when you consider it came at the very end of a brutal stretch of games, one that featured multiple ranked opponents and could have easily led the team to question itself and its direction.
It did no such thing. Instead, Arizona played one of its most complete games of the season. Offense, defense and special teams all came up big when needed, perhaps providing a glimpse of what the future will entail.
“Our team expects to win every game they play, so I don’t think that our team was any more or less surprised,” Fisch said. “They get more surprised, I think, when we don’t win then when we do”
The coach added that’s the mindset they’ve tried to impart on the team over the course of the season, but it sounds like coachspeak when talking about a roster that had a losing record entering the matchup and still has one after winning it.
Given not only the result but the confidence with which Arizona played Saturday and every other week this season, Fisch might just be speaking truth.
Fisch and the team celebrated Saturday night, as they should. It was a big win, but does it signify the next step forward in the rebuild?
Arizona had already gone from bad to competitive and from competitive to competent; have the Cats now gone from competent to good?
The next two games will tell us.
By way of the win, Arizona remained in bowl contention. They just need to win each of their last two games to reach postseason play, a feat that seems considerably more doable now than it did Saturday afternoon. Washington State is good but beatable, while Arizona State is most definitely beatable.
The fun part about big wins like the one against UCLA is that they make the next game even more important. That’s not to say a loss to Wazzu would diminish what the team accomplished, rather that what the team did at the Rose Bowl will mean even more if the Wildcats get the job done in its next time out.
Freshman linebacker Jacob Manu said it best when he was asked about where the win over UCLA ranks for him.
“Probably number one for me, “ he said. “But it’s not going to be as good as the next one. We’re just focused on the next one.”
Should Arizona win the next one, then the game after that will become the most important of the season, not that the annual battle for the Territorial Cup needs additional significance.
What does the win over UCLA mean for the program? We’ll find out next week and, hopefully, the week after that.