In a vacuum, Arizona’s third and final nonconference game should be its easiest. After opening on the road against a tough Mountain West team and then taking on an even better SEC squad at home, the Wildcats wrap up their pre-conference schedule with an FCS opponent when they take on North Dakota State on Saturday night.
The UA is 149-48-8 against current non-FBS teams, including ones that no longer sponsor football. But in recent memory Arizona is 0-1, having lost 21-19 at home to NAU in Week 3 last season.
That shocking result—which saw Arizona blow a 13-0 lead en route to its 14th of what would be 20 consecutive losses—served as rock bottom for a program that was already about as far down as one could be. It didn’t help that NAU ended up finishing with a losing record.
This year’s FCS foe is much better. The Bison (2-0) are No. 1 in both FCS polls and have won 10 straight, including last season’s national title, their ninth in 11 seasons. They’ve beaten six consecutive FBS opponents and are 9-3 all-time against the upper division.
But, still, it’s an FCS school, which creates the possibility of players overlooking this opponent with Pac-12 play right around the corner. Or does it?
“When you’re an FCS team and you beat like five or six FBS teams, you take that serious,” UA defensive end Hunter Echols said. “They have first-rounders that get drafted out of that school, they win national championships. At any level a championship is a championship, so we respect it and we’re just looking forward to competing.”
Defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen said whoever Arizona plays each week is “faceless,” while offensive coordinator Brennan Carroll said the Wildcats treat every game like a championship so the opponent shouldn’t matter.
“And our mindset hasn’t changed from January, when we started with this group,” he said. “It’s not really about who we’re playing, it has to be about us performing and executing. If you get into that, who we’re playing, who’s your opponent ... you can get screwed up. So if you change your mindset week to week, your mind may look different. So we’re trying to be consistent, trying to keep the messaging the same and not vary week to week.”
Expect quarterback Jayden de Laura to take off once or twice against NDSU, if the situation warrants it, after doing everything to avoid running beyond the line of scrimmage against Mississippi State. UA coach Jedd Fisch said as much after that game, as well as during his Monday press conference, and Carroll indicated Tuesday that scramble drills in practice this week will incorporate that.
“We’ll make an emphasis on, part of the decision-making will be, once the quarterback gets out there in space, if there’s not an obvious, open receiver—which Jayden found a bunch of times, found (Michael) Wiley a couple times for huge plays for us—if it’s not there, just tuck it and run. He’s a good runner.”
But until de Laura does head upfield, it’s still the job of every receiver out on a route to adjust. Not just to get open, but do so in a way that the quarterback sees them.
“Follow the quarterback,” receiver Dorian Singer said. “Wherever he goes, just follow him. He’s a good quarterback using his feet, but he also knows to be looking downfield for his receivers.”
Said Carroll: “Each one of them, depending on where they are on the field, per route, have to adjust based on the quarterback. Each one of them has a specific rule depending on where they are on the field and what path they’re running, because we need to have them available on both sides of the field.”
Echols, a sixth-year senior, has played in 39 games during his college career including 37 at USC. Only fellow edge rusher Jalen Harris (47) has played more.
Nansen said Echols has matured tremendously since 2017, when the former was USC’s linebackers coach and Echols was a true freshman who ended up redshirting.
“He’s got a big voice in our room,” Nansen said. “He’s kind of keeping everybody focused and paying attention to the details.”
Back then Echols was able to learn by example from the likes of Uchenna Nwosu, who would go on to get picked in the second round by the Los Angeles Chargers in the 2018 NFL Draft. Now he’s the one providing guidance to Arizona’s young defensive players such as edges Russell Davis II and Sterling Lane and linebacker Jacob Manu.
“I love the way they listen and they follow us and they want to be coached, not only by the coaches, but by the older guys,” Echols said. “They look up to us and it’s our job to kind of set that example of Arizona football and what we want them to be when we look back here and see them as juniors and seniors. We just want to set an example for them.”
Davis and Lane are playing at 210 and 220 pounds, respectively, while Manu is generously listed at 5-foot-11. Each have a lot of growing to do, either in height or weight, but Echols already sees big things coming for them.
“I kind of tell them all the time, like when I was a freshman, you guys are a lot more advanced than I was,” he said. “They might be undersized but size doesn’t matter when you have heart and when you have determination. You have great coaches like that we have. I think they will be fine, and as they get older they will grow, they’ll get bigger and stronger, they’ll get faster. They haven’t been in a college program for like a year, they’ve only been here for six months, not even six months, some of them, so they’ll grow and they’ll learn and they’ll get better. You’ll start looking at him like that, damn, that 99 (Davis) is the same 99 that we saw as a freshman? They’re gonna grow, they’re gonna be alright.”
The Turnover Sword: Origins
With five takeaways in two games, Arizona is already one shy of its 2021 tally. And based on how the players have embraced their new turnover prop, the interceptions and fumbles will keep piling up.
Which also means the footballs will keep getting spiked on the cactus-shaped turnover sword, which was Nansen’s brainchild. But how did it come about?
“We have a big chair up in our meeting room that, whoever the player of the day is ... sits there,” he said. “Well, we have a difficult time taking that out on the road, so I came up with the idea of the sword and the boys just took it over.”
As for the sword itself, Nansen said he tasked associate director of football operations Lauren Vossler to find one, and she delivered.
“The boys, they love it,” Nansen said. “We give it to them on Friday night and then they take it over to the game. They bring it over and then to the sidelines.”
- Singer, who player his senior year of high school at Phoenix Pinnacle, is originally from Minnesota. He walked on to Arizona but had scholarship offers to play Division I football, including from North Dakota State.
ME mentions that NDSU offered Dorian Singer out of high school.— Bison Report (@BisonReport) September 12, 2022
"At least our recruiting department is good at identifying people."
Thing is, the Bison wanted him to play on defense and Singer was determined to play receiver.
“In my mind I didn’t want to play defensive back in college,” said Singer, who after catching 18 passes for 301 yards over the final five games of the 2021 season was put on scholarship. This year he’s second on the team with nine receptions.
- Arizona will stick with its 6-man rotation on the offensive line, with Sam Langi serving as the “utility” man to sub in at guard and tackle. Backup center JT Hand played some guard late against San Diego State but did not play against Mississippi State, and Carroll would prefer he stick to center.
“JT has done a great job of preparing and being getting ready to go,” Carroll said. “Because he’s the backup center, he went in ... not this (last game) but the first game he went in and got his shoulder (hurt) a little bit, and I need my second center ready to rock if we have to sub (Josh Baker) out. If I’ve got two guys in there that are centers, bad things happen. We don’t want to get that in situation.”
Nansen said if defensive tackle Tia Savea, who was hurt during the first quarter against MSU and did not return, is unable to go, true freshman Jacob Kongaika and redshirt freshman Evan Branch-Haynes could see more time in the rotation. Both made their collegiate debut last week.