Arizona wraps up nonconference play on Saturday night, and what a pre-league slate it’s been.
“This is certainly a great challenge, the three nonconference games we had this season,” said coach Jedd Fisch, whose team takes on defending FCS national champion North Dakota State in its final tuneup before Pac-12 competition.
San Diego State, Mississippi State and NDSU combined to go 33-9 last season and all three either played in a bowl game or the playoffs. Combined with their nine Pac-12 opponents, the Wildcats’ 2022 slate went 93-63 in 2021, which is tied for the 16th-toughest schedule in the country and the most challenging of any Pac-12 school.
And Fisch had no say in lining up those games. The SDSU and MSU games were part of home-and-home series agreed to in 2014, while NDSU was added in 2017.
“Football scheduling is unique, it’s different than basketball scheduling where you could schedule each year,” Fisch said Thursday. “These are done seven, eight years in advance, but I thought it was a great opportunity for our players, a great challenge for our players to go play a very good football team and I think our guys are really excited about that opportunity.”
Arizona lost to its FCS opponent, NAU, last season, while NDSU hasn’t lost to an FBS team since 2009 and is 9-3 all-time against the upper level.
Here’s what to watch for when the Wildcats and Bison battle at Arizona Stadium:
The offensive ‘schedule’
Arizona had the ball 14 times against Mississippi State, getting into Bulldogs territory nine times including three occasions when they started on the plus side. So how did it only manage 17 points?
“I think our difficulties came when we got off schedule,” offensive coordinator Brennan Carroll said Tuesday. “Week one, we were able to have positive plays on first and second down. We got into a lot of third and long situations (against MSU), which are never good. We want to obviously have success on first and second down.”
Of Arizona’s 76 offensive plays, 31 were on first down. It averaged only 3.84 on those plays, 11 of which didn’t gain any yardage and another three that were for a loss, resulting in an average of 8.88 yards needed on second down.
Fisch said being in “bad D and D’s” greatly contributed to why Arizona more or less abandoned the run game after the first quarter. Ten of its 22 run plays were in the first quarter.
“It’s always important to be able to run the football,” Fisch said. “The key is to be able to be in down and distance to call the runs. I never lost any patience in the running game. It was not being in position to call runs, and then the score at the time dictated different you know, you’re in a different situation with eights minutes or so left down a few possessions. For us really last week it was we got into bad D and D’s that caused us to get away from some runs or we would have a run on 1st and 10 that wouldn’t go anywhere. And now you’re saying to yourself, okay, its 2nd and 10, what’s the best situation here to be able to get two downs to get a first, was it to throw it or run it. But I’m hopeful that we’re not going to be in that situation too often. We’re able to stay balanced, because that’s certainly our goal.”
Being able to run the ball will be even more critical against a North Dakota State team that is very methodical on offense. In its wins over Drake and North Carolina A&T by a combined score of 99-17 it only ran 98 plays and 68 of those were run plays.
Fisch called the Bison’s offense “old school pro-style” because of the use of two backs, including a fullback, and multiple tight ends. And after coming off a game against an Air Raid team, the difference will be striking not just for fans but for the Wildcat defenders.
“The thing that makes them unique as well is they’ve been doing it for so long, and doing it the same way for so long,” Fisch said. “There’s a lot of plug and play, so to speak. The staff has been there together for a very, very long time. I know this head coach (Matt Entz) has been there four years, but he was the defensive coordinator before that. The guy beforehand (Chris Klieman) moved on to Kansas State, he was the defensive coordinator before that. So it’s kind of been they’ve been recruiting to this system. So they’re able to really get rolling with this system.”
NDSU has had 11 different players get carries this season, none more than nine. The “leading” rusher is fullback Hunter Luepke, who has 68 yards and two of the Bison’s six rushing touchdowns on seven carries.
The Bison are also stout defensively, despite having to replace several starters from a year ago. They’re allowing 2.7 yards per carry and have recorded six sacks along with five takeaways.
“They’re very sound defensively,” Fisch said. “There a 4-down front, which is a little bit different than what we’ve been facing the last two weeks. Both San Diego State and Mississippi State our guys that play 3-down with spinners and walk-arounds. This is a more 4-down over defense structure. They play all the coverages, they’ll plan man, they’ll play cover two, they’ll play two trap, they’ve play cover three and they’ll play quarters. They’ll pressure when needed. You’re going off of games that they’ve had big leads (in), so you’re really watching, mostly, first, second quarter of games, not much of the second half. I know that FBS teams haven’t scored against them in the fourth quarter the last four games they played, so you know what that means. They’re going to play very hard and physical on defense.”
Minimizing miscues and maximizing NDSU’s snafus
NDSU has outscored its opponents 35-0 on turnovers, with three defensive TDs on fumble returns. Arizona has recorded five takeaways this season, one fewer than all of 2021, but has scored only 17 points off them.
The Wildcats have also given it away five times, resulting in 20 points for their opponents.
Quarterback Jayden de Laura has been intercepted four times, three against MSU. Fisch is writing off the tipped pass at the line last week, saying 95 percent of college quarterbacks would have thrown a pick in that scenario.
The same can’t be said for his other two INTs last week, both on scramble plays when he used his legs to keep a play alive but not to run when the field was open.
“The other two were just decision-making when you’re on the run,” Fisch said, adding that de Laura was “very focused” in practice this week. “And what Jayden knows is that he’s gotten a lot of big plays from making decisions like that on the run, but he just needs to be a little more there. So we’re going to continue to educate him, but I thought that he really handled himself very well this week, coming out and and determined to have a better game than he had last week.”
To defer or not defer
Arizona has won the pregame coin flip both times, but that’s where the similarities end. The Wildcats deferred to the second half at San Diego State, starting out on defense, but took the ball first against MSU.
What will the Wildcats do if they get the choice again? Depends on the opponent, and how the roughly 15 scripted plays Fisch has at the ready look.
“It’s kind of the type of team you’re playing, and where do you feel their strengths are?,” Fisch said. “Where do you feel your strengths are? Traditionally I would defer.”
Fisch said deferring makes it possible for his team to get the “middle eight” of the game, meaning the final four minutes of the first half and the first four of the second half. That’s what Arizona had at SDSU, scoring a TD with 28 seconds left in the second quarter to take a 24-10 lead into the locker room, then get the ball to start the third and go 65 yards in six plays to go up 31-10.
“You have about 28 real live minutes, or 30 minutes, because you have halftime plus those possessions, that their offense isn’t on the field,” Fisch said. “That’s kind of the ultimate. If you could go 14-0 in that let’s call it middle eight, that to me is usually a great indication of winning.”
Defensive lineman Tia Savea is one of many impact transfers Arizona added in the offseason, and if not for some injuries during training camp he may have started in the interior. An injury earlier against Mississippi State puts his status in question for NDSU, though Fisch said Thursday “right now it looks like he’s gonna be a go.”
There’s a nonzero chance the UA could deploy two Savea brothers at the same time, as Tia’s older brother Traemaine Savea, joined the team last week as a graduate transfer walk-on.
The 6-foot-2, 290-pound defensive tackle played in 2021 at NAU, meaning he was at Arizona Stadium for the Lumberjacks’ shocking upset. He had six tackles in seven games in his lone season of action in Flagstaff after transferring from East Los Angeles College.