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What to watch for when Arizona football hosts Colorado

arizona-wildcats-football-colorado-buffaloes-preview-pac12-run-defense-isaiah-taylor-dj-williams Arizona Athletics

Despite a 1-11 record last season, Arizona had quite a few games where the outcome was still in doubt going to the final quarter. The Colorado game wasn’t one of them.

Down just 6-0 at the half, the Wildcats allowed 21 points in a 5-minute span of the third quarter and ended up losing 34-0.

Another bad third quarter doomed the UA (2-2, 0-1) last week in its Pac-12 opener at Cal, but now it has a chance to get right against an opponent that hasn’t done anything right. The Buffaloes (0-4, 0-1) have been outscored 173-47, are last in the country in run defense and are starting freshmen at quarterback and running back.

UA coach Jedd Fisch said Colorado’s four opponents are a combined 14-1, and the Buffaloes will be “hungry” for a chance to break through in the win column.

Here’s what to watch for when the Wildcats and Buffaloes battle at Arizona Stadium:

Plugging the gaps

Arizona allowed 354 rushing yards to Cal, and in the past two games have given up 637 yards on the ground. Opponents are averaging more than 6.1 yards per carry, which would be the worst rate in school history if it held up.

The Wildcats were charged with 17 missed tackles last week, per Pro Football Focus, prompting Fisch to add a second tackling period to practice. While drills can only do so much, especially without the ability to take someone to the ground, just as important for Arizona is just being better and knowing where to be (and where to go) on each play.

“Gap integrity” has been a big buzz phrase this past week, with defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen and linebacker Jerry Roberts saying it several times on Tuesday. As bad as Arizona’s tackling was against Cal, the fact that so many running lanes were available was an even bigger problem.

Fisch said the film from last week’s game provided his defense with plenty examples of what it did wrong.

“We emphasized tackling this week, adding an extra period there, but a lot of it comes down to just execution, being fundamentally sound, and continuing to improve in that area on all facets, all phases,” he said. “It’s really important for us to be able to show the guys where there was a deficiency or where there was an error, of what we can improve upon. You’re able to point out pad level when you’re watching film, you’re able to talk about, or maybe show, a couple of guys in one gap where nobody’s in the other gap, and how you can be better, be more gap sound in that regard. And then you have to go on the practice field and do it. You have to be able to see what it feels like when somebody’s trying to block you and then still be able to do your responsibility. So it’s both the film room and the practice field.”

It looks like Arizona will be without one of its best defenders against Colorado, as Fisch said safety Jaxen Turner is unlikely to play due to a shoulder injury that knocked him out last week. Redshirt freshman Isaiah Taylor, who played a season-high 49 snaps last week and had nine tackles, would step in at free safety.

Run Wildcats, run!

Think Arizona’s run defense has been bad? Hold my beer as you run past me, says Colorado.

The Buffs are giving up 323.3 yards per game, a number that actually went down after allowing UCLA to run for 249 last week in a 45-17 home loss.

This should mean big numbers for Arizona, which is averaging 125.5 rushing yards per game. The Wildcats looked poised for a huge rushing day at Cal, getting 105 on the ground in the first quarter, but went away from the run in the second and after falling behind in the third all but abandoned it.

Arizona hasn’t had a 100-yard rusher since Michael Wiley and Gary Brightwell both topped that mark in December 2020 (against Colorado). The last time the Wildcats had three 100-yard rushers in a game was in November 2017 against Oregon State, which also happens to be the last time they were favored by more than two scores against an FBS opponent.

Wiley’s career high is 122 yards, in that 2020 Colorado game, while freshman Jonah Coleman figures to blow past his career-best of 40 yards from the opener at San Diego State if he gets enough touches.

DJ Williams had 88 yards at SDSU, but since has only 43 on 12 carries. He had just two touches at Cal, though Fisch said that was because Williams was dealing with an ankle injury that caused him to miss two practices but that now he’s back to 100 percent.

Don’t forget the pass

Colorado ranks seventh nationally against the pass, allowing 144.5 yards per game, but that’s a very misleading stat when you consider how much teams are running on the Buffs. Opponents have only attempted 77 passes in four games, completing 50, resulting in a quarterback rating of 151.1 that’s 109 out of 131 FBS schools.

Arizona is 22nd in FBS in pass offense, at 301.3 yards per game. The Wildcats are tied for third in the country with 24 pass plays of 20 or more yards, only three fewer than all of last season.

But only six of those completions have gone for 30-plus yards, with the longest going for 38 yards. Those big gains will come, Fisch said, as long as Arizona keeps doing what it’s doing.

“I’m not really worried at all in terms of the difference of hitting a 45-yarder versus a 35-yarder,” he said. “The key is you want to be able to get over 18 yards, those are your real definition of explosive passes. I think we’re one of the better teams in the country in that regard of being able to be explosive. It’s nice to be able to hit a receiver on an over the top throw rather than a back shoulder, but I think those come. If we can continue to be efficient in the passing game—I’d like us to complete about five more passes a game, if we have the same amount of pass attempts, let’s say hit up to about 63 or 65 percent—and then hopefully a few of those (big ones) will come.”

Throwing out the records

As noted earlier, last sesaon Arizona hung with several teams that were far better than it. So what’s to keep winless Colorado from doing the same despite being 17.5-point underdogs?

Asked how the Wildcats planned to deal with a opponent desperate to win a game, Fisch said how the Buffaloes have played before Saturday shouldn’t matter.

“Well, I think we’re desperate, so we’ll see what two desperate teams look like,” he said. “There’s eight games left in the season, for both teams, and the key is to be able to have the same mentality every game you play, and never allow the team you play, the record of a team you’re playing, to you ever affect the outcome of the game.”

In its last 30 games when favored by 17 or more, Arizona is 28-2 including the loss last season to NAU. Against FBS opponents this century, the Wildcats have covered just five of 19 times (with two pushes) as this big of a favorite.