While most other Pac-12 teams had a game during nonconference play that could best be described as a “warm up,” Arizona has been in battles from the outset. As a result, the Wildcats haven’t had the opportunity to go deep into their roster of available players, sticking with a fairly tight rotation on both offense and defense.
If ever there’s going to be a game where that trend changes it’s Saturday’s matchup with winless Colorado, which has been outscored 173-47. The Buffaloes’ games have been so lopsided that their four opponents have used an average 65.8 offensive and defensive players per game.
Arizona, on the other hand, is averaging 39.5 per game on offense and defense, and the number keeps dropping. In the 49-31 loss at Cal, the Wildcats played only 16 offensive players and 18 on defense, and two of those defenders were on the field for a combined three plays.
All told, the UA has used 24 players on offense and 27 on defense, with 15 and 16 (respectively) on the field for at least 20 percent of the snaps.
Don’t expect that to change much on offense. Head coach Jedd Fisch said as much on Monday when explaining why most of Arizona’s young receivers and tight ends haven’t gotten much playing time.
“I think that the whole idea is to play your best, just like you do in the NFL,” he said. “You develop on the practice field, and then as your time continues to come that’s when you make your strides.”
As for Arizona’s defense, the consideration to play more (or different) guys is more in play. Defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen wouldn’t commit to that on Tuesday, saying “this week you’re probably going to see a lot of guys playing,” but signs point to more contributors against the Buffs.
“I got to manage their reps, when they get their reps,” Nansen said, in response to a question about getting more of the Wildcats’ younger defenders on the field. “Usually when we get down in the red zone I like to have our best guys out there.”
Arizona has 21 true freshmen or redshirt freshmen scholarship defenders, 12 of which have played for a combined 476 snaps on defense. But linebackers Kolbe Cage and Jacob Manu have logged 333 of those, while 49 of safety Isaiah Taylor’s 58 snaps came in the Cal game when he filled in for an injured Jaxen Turner.
Back to (tackling) basics
Nansen used “fundamentals” on multiple occasions Tuesday when discussing Arizona’s tackling, or lack thereof, against Cal. He said the Wildcats are “going back to spring ball” when it comes to fixing problems with technique, which he said is common as the year goes on.
“This time of the season guys are kind of bad at techniques and playing more assignment, trying to play the play instead of defeating your man,” he said.
Fisch said Arizona will double its tackling drill periods this week in hopes of fixing what has led to 49 missed tackles in four games, including 17 against Cal. Tackling to the ground in practice isn’t an option, Fisch said, so drills it will have to be.
Linebacker Jerry Roberts, who missed three tackles against Cal and was given a 28.3 tackling grade by Pro Football Focus (compared to 42.7 for the team), admitted that tackling drills will never suffice for the real thing.
“In a drill, it’s kind of more controlled,” he said. “They say a person can make one cut or whatnot. When that’s live tackling there can be a running back back there, he can be in the backfield making five different cuts before he goes upfield. It’s kind of hard to replicate that.”
Arizona is a 17.5-point favorite against Colorado, which would be its largest spread as a favorite against an FBS opponent in almost five years. That comes after being the underdogs in the four previous games, once by double digits and another time at home against an FCS foe.
Might as well stick with that frame of mind, Roberts said.
“We understand that we’re favored, but we’re still going to take the mindset as if we’re not,” he said.
Roberts said there has been zero mention by the coaching staff, to this point at least, about last year’s 34-0 loss at Colorado. If that’s true it would jive with past statements from Fisch and offensive coordinator Brennan Carroll that indicate Arizona is pretending the 2021 season never happened.