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What to watch for when Arizona football opens Pac-12 play at Cal

arizona-wildcats-football-preview-cal-golden-bears-pac12-jack-plummer-jaydn-ott-berkely-2022 Photo by Christopher Hook/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s on to Pac-12 play for Arizona after a 2-1 start to the 2022 season, and the Wildcats get things started against the only team it’s managed to beat in the league in almost three years.

The UA snapped its program-record 20-game losing streak last November against the Golden Bears, beating them 10-3 on Homecoming. It was Arizona’s sixth consecutive victory over Cal, dating back to 2010.

But coach Jedd Fisch said there’s no little to no mention of last season’s triumph this week, sticking with the team’s desire to keep 2021 in the past and not link it to the present.

“We don’t talk about it at all,” Fisch said. “We don’t reference it. We don’t spend time dealing with it. The team was completely different. We’re a different team. They’re a different team. And it’s not about what one game you win or one game you lose, it’s about how can this football team get better every single day.”

Here’s what to watch for when the Wildcats and Golden Bears (2-1) battle in Berkeley:

Block party

Arizona ranks ninth in the Pac-12 in rushing offense, averaging 122.3 yards per game, and its 3.78 yards per carry only better than Cal’s 3.62 average.

Then again, the Wildcats haven’t run the ball as much as Fisch would like to. Per Pro Football Focus, only 87 of Arizona’s 217 offensive snaps have been run plays, numbers heavily skewed by how much it had to throw against Mississippi State and the number of times Jayden de Laura ended up taking off after being flushed from the pocket on pass plays.

Offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Brennan Carroll said Tuesday that Arizona needs to improve overall in the run game, not just in how often it runs. And the key to that may come in blocking.

Not only up front, but on the outside, where the blocking of the UA’s wide receivers has been a “work in progress” according to Fisch.

“They’re working really hard to become good blockers,” he said. “The guys that make a touchdown blocks are the wide receivers. The guys that get a play started are usually the O-line.”

All three of Arizona’s main receivers have season run-blocking grades of 52.7 or lower, compared to the team-high 72.9 of left tackle Jordan Morgan. Bringing up the rear is freshman Tetairoa McMillan, with a 37.2 grade that would probably be even lower if it included blocking on screen passes.

In fairness to T-Mac, he probably rarely had to block in high school, which makes this a skill he’s still learning.

“I think as a freshman, what you’ve been asked to do blocking-wise in high school is very different than what you’re asked to do blocking-wise in college football,” Fisch said. “And the size of the player you’re blocking in high school is much different than the size of the player you’re blocking now. The best players, like a T-Mac, in high school he probably wasn’t blocking. Most of the time they were probably down the field can catching balls. So therefore, it’s a learning curve in regards to being asked to downfield block, being asked to block at the point of attack. He’s continuing to build his confidence there.”

As for who will run the ball for Arizona, the by-committee approach figures to continue. Michael Wiley has started every game and has played the most run snaps (29) but is third on the team in carries, with 21. DJ Williams has the third-most snaps on run plays, but he’s gotten the ball every time in that situation and Jonah Coleman has 24 carries in 26 run snaps including some big ones in the fourth quarter against North Dakota State.

When it comes to a fourth option, Fisch said Drake Anderson would be the choice since Rayshon ‘Speedy’ Luke appears to be out for a while after sharing on Instagram that he had surgery. Anderson hasn’t played yet in 2022 after leading the team in rushing a year ago with 385 yards.

The other Plummer

When Arizona beat Cal last season it was led by quarterback Will Plummer, who twice had to leave that game because of injury but also ran for a career-high 68 yards. He was playing that game, and many others, with a shoulder injury that required surgery in April, and this fall his main contribution to the team has been as a scout team QB.

Which means that this week when he (and walk-on Cole Tannenbaum) have spent practice pretending to be Cal’s starting passer they were attempting to mimic Will’s older brother, Jack Plummer.

Jack Plummer is in his first season with the Bears after starting his career at Purdue, where he threw for more than 3,400 yards and 26 touchdowns in three seasons. With Cal he’s thrown for 730 yards and five TDs with two interceptions, and in last week’s 24-17 loss at Notre Dame he also ran for a score.

“He’s consistent,” UA defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen said of Jack Plummer. “He a system guy, a dropback passer. Looks like he understands the offense, so he does a good job of operating the offense.”

Jack Plummer, who is two years older, said he and Will spoke on Sunday but neither was willing to give up any “inside information” about the other’s game plan.

“We’re both team guys,” Jack Plummer said. “He’s not going to tell me X, Y and Z about Arizona. That would be a pretty messed up thing for him to do. And I’m not going to give him anything he can tell his coaches. We’re both trying to win the game.”

Facing a ‘normal’ offense

San Diego State was a run-based offense, but one where the QB is just as likely to carry the ball as anyone else. Mississippi State used the Air Raid to force Arizona’s defense to cover every inch of the field. Then North Dakota State went old-school smashmouth football, with multiple tight ends and/or fullbacks on almost every play.

Cal, mercifully, is a far more traditional offense than what the Wildcats have faced to this point. Nansen wouldn’t use the N word to describe the Bears, not after what he’s seen on film and what he expects them to do to exploit Arizona’s flaws.

“I wouldn’t say normal,” he said. “They still got 12 personnel, 13 personnel. When you look at our tape—I’ve been in offensive rooms scheming for teams—they’re gonna find something that works, and that’s what they’re going try to get ready for so we got to be ready for everything this week.”

After Arizona allowed 283 rushing yards to NDSU, look for Cal to try some of the same power runs the Bison were effective with. The main weapon there will be freshman Jaydn Ott, who is averaging 5.1 yards per carry.

Further defensive depth development

This could be the first game Arizona operates almost exclusively out of the 4-2-5 alignment that Nansen’s scheme is based on. The Wildcats often went 5-1-5 against SDSU, regularly had six defebsive backs on the field for MSU and used a traditional 4-3 base for NDSU.

So does that mean this is the first time we see heavy rotation on the defensive line, like Nansen has repeatedly said he wants? Because that hasn’t been the case yet.

“I’m looking to get fresh bodies in there when they are available,” Nansen said. “Most definitely I would like to do more.”

Arizona has had 195 defensive snaps, and all four starters on the D-line have played 146 or more of them. The most-used reserve has been Dion ‘Tank’ Wilson, with 76, while Tia Savea has been limited to only 25 defensive snaps because of an ankle injury that knocked him out early against MSU and kept him on the sidelines last week.

Of the other six defensive linemen who have played, five are true or redshirt freshmen. And as much as he wants to get those guys more experience, Fisch said the priority will always be to win the game.

“That’ll be the first avenue that we’ll go through,” he said. “The young guys, I believe, are growing and maturing and getting better, so there’s more and more opportunities for them to get into the game and as the weeks go on. We don’t want to play the same four guys every snap, so we need to find a way to get those guys substituted even a little bit more. We’re working through that right now.”

The crazy history against Cal (beyond just last year’s game)

Though Fisch says the game isn’t referenced internally, and Carroll replies with “2022, brother” when asked about it on Tuesday, the win over Cal no doubt has been on the minds this week of UA players who were around last season.

That includes cornerback Treydan Stukes, who knocked down the Bears’ 4th-down pass attempt to seal the victory.

“It’s generous to call it a pass breakup,” Stuke said. “I remember I thought ‘oh my gosh.’ And I was like ‘oh my gosh, we won!’ Like at first it was like, oh crap I dropped it. I didn’t realize the game was over. I was just overcome with joy. I was just so happy for everyone on the team to finally get over that hump.

“I think it was really important. It had been a rough patch, obviously, at the University for the last two and a half years. And just to turn it around like that to break that streak. It felt good for the team. It felt good for the coaches and everyone involved.

Arizona greatly benefitted from the opponent missing numerous starters, including senior QB Chase Garbers, due to strict COVID protocols in Cal’s home county. Having that play a huge role in the outcome was just par for the course for a series that has had no shortage of weird games.

All six of the UA’s consecutive victories over the Bears have been decided by one score, including the 2014 “Hill Mary” game and the 2017 win in Berkeley in which Colin Schooler broke up a pass in the end zone on a 2-play play in double overtime.

There was the home upset of 8th-ranked Cal in 2006, when Antoine Cason won it on a pick-six; the “mutiny” game in 2002, where Arizona won 52-41 on the road a few days after 40 players complained to the school president about coach John Mackovic’s treatment of them; a 56-55 road loss in 4 OTs in 1996; and a 1983 road collapse in 1983 when the Wildcats blew a 26-3 lead that became a 33-33 tie.

This is an afternoon game, but don’t be surprised if it has some #Pac12AfterDark characteristics.