Back in 2005, Arizona was nearing the end of its second season under newish head coach Mike Stoops. The coach was tasked with trying to resuscitate a program that had bottomed out, and a season that featured a handful of one-score defeats seemed to have finally turned the corner with an upset win over No. 7 UCLA.
The Wildcats followed up that signature win by getting blown out at home against a bad Washington team.
That Arizona team was not ready, and wouldn’t be for another couple of seasons
The 2022 Arizona Wildcats showed on Saturday in a loss to Washington State that they too are not ready, though they’re certainly closer than those who wore the red and blue some 17 years ago.
Instead of building off a signature win over UCLA, the Wildcats played one of their worst games of the season. Both the opponent and moment seemed too big for them as the offense never really got going, the QB and his receivers were rarely on the same page (which led to a sideline scuffle) and the 31-20 final score belies how poorly Arizona played.
The defeat eliminated Arizona from bowl contention and seemed to be a step back when an opportunity for a leap forward was on the table.
Disappointing as the loss was—and make no mistake, it was very disappointing—it should not put much of a damper on what the team has accomplished up to this point in the season. That Arizona was playing a meaningful game this late into November is a sign of progress,
Heading into the last week of the season, the Cats rank fifth in the Pac-12 in total offense and seventh in scoring. They are 11th in both total defense in scoring defense. Three of their four wins have come against teams that will finish with a winning record, and there is genuine growth and progression throughout the roster.
So even with the dud against Washington State, this season should be viewed as a success. If the Wildcats beat ASU on Friday to reclaim the Territorial Cup, it will be seen as such by virtually everyone.
Head Coach Jedd Fisch knows what’s at stake.
“I think it’s a huge game,” he said Monday. “I think it’s a huge game for older guys that have been a part of this program for a while and having not gotten a win. I think it’s a big, big game for our young guys, that they can help send off our older guys, and take the momentum of winning this game into the offseason. I think it’s a big game for our staff.
“There’s been a lot of great improvements in our team as a whole all season long, and it’d be very exciting to be able to finish strong at home. I think that all in all, with our team, they’re continuing to improve and they’re continuing to get better.”
Fisch and his players knew all this prior to last week’s game, and it’s possible some were looking ahead to it. You’d hope that wouldn’t be the case, not with bowl eligibility on the line, but it’s possible.
If anyone was in fact looking to the rivalry game, the good news is now it’s here. Beating the Sun Devils is the only thing that matters.
The Cats are favored to do so.
While Arizona isn’t necessarily good, ASU is certainly bad. They have just three wins on the season, with only one of them—a fluke against Washington—being over a team with a winning record.
The Sun Devils rank near the bottom of the conference in every statistical category except for pass defense, where they are fifth. There are talented individuals on the roster, but the team is lacking.
Now, does that mean Arizona is guaranteed to win? Of course not. Being the better team only matters if they actually play like it. The Arizona that showed up against UCLA will crush ASU; the one that played against Washington State will, well, you get the idea.
Arizona has clearly come a long way in a short amount of time. There is good reason to believe the 2023 season should finish up in a bowl game. That there was even a chance they could have reached one this season was a pleasant surprise.
While the Wildcats are much improved, the transition from awful to competent is not nearly as difficult as the one from competent to consistently good.
Arizona is plenty competent and can be good—very good—at times. The youthful nature of the roster lends itself to emotional swings and inconsistency, mixing in frustration with excitement.
The Wildcats showed they were not ready to beat a team like Washington State, not this past weekend.
But they are ready to beat ASU.