Arizona’s colossal wave of momentum built up by the season-opening win at San Diego State is gone, left on the field where the Wildcats turned it over three times and failed to capitalize on Mississippi State’s mistakes in a 22-point loss.
The UA has no time to sulk, not with defending FCS champion North Dakota State coming to town next week. Coach Jedd Fisch said Arizona’s Sunday evening practice would be a rough one as the team breaks down what went wrong and what needs to be done better.
“They’re gonna have a hard practice, and they’re gonna embrace that grind,” Fisch said.
Here’s what we learned about Arizona from the loss:
Jayden de Laura needs to run more
Arizona’s quarterback was running for his life most of the game, as MSU sacked him twice and got pressure at least 17 times according to Pro Football Focus. On that 17 pressured dropbacks, de Laura was 5 of 15 for 33 yards and two interceptions.
It didn’t have to be that way, not with the amount of wide-open field he had ahead on many of those scrambles.
Despite saying during training camp that he’d take off and run if needed, de Laura has avoided doing that in Arizona’s first two games. This was egregiously noticeable against MSU, where it got so bad that on one play in the second half the remainder of the crowd at Arizona Stadium screamed “run!” only to see de Laura force a throw into double coverage in the end zone.
“That’s something we talked about, and I think we’ll get better there,” Fisch said afterward. “And I can do a better job at practice making sure that he recognizes that those running opportunities, when they do present themselves, and take advantage of them in a game versus sometimes in practice you want to try and make the receiver work and the DB work and whatnot. That’s on me.”
Not including sacks, de Laura ran for 208 yards and three touchdowns last season at Washington State. That’s not a lot, but it’s better than nothing. Against MSU he could have easily gotten several first downs with his legs.
The offensive line isn’t getting the job done
After running for 162 yards against the core of a unit that was in the top 5 nationally against the run a year ago, Arizona rushed for 65 yards on 20 carries against MSU. Take out Michael Wiley’s 34-yard TD run on the first drive and the Wildcats averaged 1.63 yards per carry.
The 40 total rushing yards (including minus-25 on sacks) was the fewest for Arizona since 2011.
MSU’s defense had a lot to do with that, as was the case with how much they pressured de Laura, but Arizona’s offensive line was also much to blame. And it’s not just one guy, though right tackle Paiton Fears has given up 10 hurries and 13 pressures in 140 snaps according to PFF.
If five guys aren’t enough to keep the pocket clean and open up running holes, the UA may have to play two tight ends more often. Unfortunately, its best blocking TE so far has been Tanner McLachlan, who has also been one of its most consistent pass-catching options.
Arizona’s pass defense is still solid
Mississippi State completed 80 percent of its passes, the first time an opponent has done that on at least 20 attempts since Utah in 2019. But that game saw the Utes average more than 9 yards per attempt, and in every other similar occasion since 2000 the opponent averaged at least 10 yards per throw.
The Bulldogs averaged 6.4 yards per attempt, their 40 completions producing 320 yards. That’s the Air Raid offense in a nutshell, and frankly Arizona did a pretty good job against it.
“Defensively I thought we did a really, really good job all the way around,” Fisch said. “I mean, they’re gonna always get yards. I think in their passing game, they’re always gonna have some guys open.”
MSU only attempted one pass that traveled 20 or more yards, and didn’t complete it. Another seven were throw 10-plus yards past the line of scrimmage and everything else was short or behind the line.
There’s only so much you can do to defend those throws, particularly when there are consistently four or five targets to guard. It’s about minimizing the yards after the catch, and while MSU gained 173 “YAC” (per PFF) that comes out to less than 4.6 per reception.
Arizona missed 12 tackles against MSU, but four of those were against the run.
Takeaways are fun!
Arizona picked off one pass and recovered two forced fumbles, including one by safety Jaxen Turner where Fisch said he “lawnmowered” the ball out of a receiver’s hands, scooped it up and returned it 47 yards.
That was Turner’s second takeaway in as many games, and he nearly had an interception against MSU.
The UA has five takeaways in two games, one shy of last season’s total tally. It has multiple takeaways in back-to-back games since doing so the first three contests of 2019, and is on pace for its most in a season since having 33 in 2000.
Who knew having a Turnover Sword would be so motivating?