About this time a year ago we were celebrating a moral victory of sorts, with Arizona playing a competitive opening game against BYU but ultimately falling short.
Celebrating actual victories is more fun.
Arizona opened its season with a road win over San Diego State. The 38-20 final is not indicative of how the game went. Had the Wildcats not shot themselves in the foot a couple of times the score would have been even more lopsided.
Then again, had the Wildcats not shot themselves in the foot they wouldn’t be the Wildcats.
Still, the dominant performance was as refreshing as it was surprising. It’s not just that Arizona won the game, as most of us here at AZDesertSwarm expected the upset, but it’s really about how the game unfolded.
Arizona was the superior team from the jump. The defense was disruptive and swarming while the offense was at times unstoppable.
Now it’s entirely possible that San Diego State just isn’t very good. The Aztecs lost a considerable amount from the team that had its way with Arizona last season en route to a 12-win season and also, the game-time temperatures probably did them no favors.
However it would be wrong to try and diminish what Arizona did Saturday afternoon and while one strong performance does not mean they will contend for the Pac-12 South or even a bowl game, the Wildcats have certainly put the the state and rest of the conference on notice.
While the Arizona program just won, as CBS was so kind to point out, for the second time in the last 1,064 days, the 2022 Wildcats are a much different team than the one that finished 2019 on a 7-game losing streak before winning zero games in the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign. They are also different than last year’s squad, which played hard but couldn’t finish games and struggled to bounce back from miscues.
This team has considerably more talent than those that preceded it and showed a kid of resiliency that will serve it well going forward. How many of us had thoughts of “here it comes” after the Dorian Singer fumble that led to a San Diego State touchdown? How about the Jayden de Laura pick on the very next drive?
If not then, it definitely happened after the “blocked” punt, right? Fortunately the players had more confidence than most of us watching and did not let their own miscues turn into anything more than speed bumps on the road to victory.
And really, it all started with a quarterback and receiver duo that couldn’t have done much more in their debuts.
De Laura arrived hyped as the kind of quarterback who could make Jedd Fisch’s offense come to life.
In passing for 299 yards and four touchdowns, he did that.
Jacob Cowing transferred in with great expectations, too, after being one of the most sought-after players upon putting his name in the portal.
Eight catches for 152 yards and three touchdowns, all while being unguardable the entire afternoon, showed us why.
De Laura and Cowing were the stars, but it was a team effort that featured quality performances from many players and a game-plan that spoke well to the coaching staff’s ability to put its players in position to succeed.
Nothing about the win was flukey, which means now we get to ponder how much of what Arizona did can be expected to happen again. The good news is, quite a bit.
For example, there’s no reason to think de Laura will suddenly forget how to quarterback. He’s going to have his struggles, as any player will, and we got a glimpse Saturday of how his aggressive and freelancing nature can lead to turnovers. But he’s a proven commodity, and should only get better with more time in this system with these teammates.
Similarly Cowing should continue to thrive, unless defenses game-plan to limit his impact. That would then lead to more opportunities for Tetairoa McMillan, Singer and, well, everyone else Arizona can throw out there.
The stable of running backs, led Saturday by DJ Williams, was diverse and productive. We may not know who will lead the way on a week-to-week basis, but the coaching staff has plenty of options when trying to find yards on the ground.
When it comes to offense, the only question is how well the offensive line will hold up. Fairing well against a generally-stout San Diego State front bodes well for the Cats.
On the other side of the ball, Arizona’s secondary figured to be a strength and it certainly was. Some of that had to do with San Diego State’s abysmal passing attack, but receivers were rarely open and when catches were made, so were tackles.
The defensive front was also able to get to San Diego State’s quarterbacks, and held up well against one of the country’s better rushing attacks. Hunter Echols carried his stellar camp into the season, while Jerry Roberts was everywhere and Jalen Harris made his presence felt.
Whereas there’s little reason to think Arizona’s offense is in for any sizeable regression, it’s likely facing better offenses will expose the Wildcats’ defense at least to some degree. This next game against Mississippi State will be a great test.
Fortunately, if Arizona’s offense remains potent, as it should, pressure will be taken off of its defense while putting it on opponents to keep up.
We still can’t be sure of how good Arizona is, as one game does not a great season make. Much of what led to their success in San Diego appears repeatable so while this was the first win of the season, it most certainly won’t be the last.