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Shrugging off setbacks part of Arizona’s rebuilding ‘process’

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Arizona never trailed at San Diego State. Yet for many fans there were probably still several moments where it felt like things could go sideways quickly, especially after living through the last few seasons.

That mindset was not shared by the Wildcats’ players or coaches.

“We tried to emphasize every day that we could that this is 2022, and don’t look back,” coach Jedd Fisch said after the UA’s first season-opening win since 2017 and its first on the road since 2010. “And don’t think that, because maybe one thing happened last year and we couldn’t overcome, that it has anything to do with this year. So just play the next play, every play, and don’t focus on what could have been.

“We don’t talk about the last play.”

Arizona’s victory was far from perfect. It turned the ball over on consecutive possessions in the first half and had a massive breakdown on special teams that directly led to an SDSU score in the third quarter.

Yet each time something went wrong, and in particularly when the mistakes started to stack up, the message was still the same: next play.

“It’s simple, you push it aside and say next play,” quarterback Jayden de Laura said.

That’s how de Laura looked at it after he threw an interception late in the second quarter, which came only five minutes after Dorian Singer was stripped and SDSU converted the takeaway into a touchdown to get within 17-10.

Though he couldn’t directly contribute to how Arizona would respond to that second consecutive turnover, both in plus territory, de Laura knew his defense would pick him up just as he told them he’d do the same for them at other moments.

“The defense would come up to me and say we need a score and I’d say ‘I got you,’ said de Laura, who threw for 299 yards and four TDs. “And vice versa, I need a stop and they got a stop. I feel like this team has a connection that nobody really understands yet.”

Sure enough, two plays later safety Jaxen Turner was in the right place at the right time and hauled in an interception that went through an SDSU receiver’s hands. Turner returned the pick into plus territory, setting up de Laura’s 4-yard TD pass to Jacob Cowing to give the Wildcats a 24-10 lead just before halftime.

Up 31-10 but unable to move the ball after getting pinned deep, Arizona had to punt from its own end zone. “Personal protector” Josh Donovan slid into punter Kyle Ostendorp’s lane, leading to Ostendorp kicking the ball off Donovan’s arm and resulting in an SDSU TD.

Arizona went 3-and-out on its next drive, and the Aztecs returned the ensuing punt into Wildcat territory then quickly got inside the 10-yard line. Another TD would make it a 1-score game with more than a quarter to go, and with the vast majority of the 34,046 fans at Snapdragon Stadium there for the home team the ingredients were there for the tide to turn.

Since de Laura wasn’t on last year’s team, which went 1-11 and had two games where it squandered 13-0 leads, it wasn’t possible for him to have such lingering memories on Saturday. Linebacker Jerry Roberts did, though, but he wouldn’t entertain them. Not when Arizona was up multiple scores, and certainly not when the game got tighter.

“The whole thing was, let’s not get comfortable,” Roberts said. “Let’s keep attacking.”

Roberts combined with Jalen Harris on a 1st-and-goal tackle on a 2-yard rush, then on 2nd and 3rd down he was also in the mix on run plays that went for 1 and zero yards, forcing SDSU to kick a field goal to keep it a 2-score game.

Arizona responded by putting the game away with an 11-play, 75-yard drive that included eight runs against a defense that returned the bulk of a unit that ranked third nationally against the run in 2021.

“That drive just showed that, if we want to run the ball we can run the ball,” de Laura said.

Since getting hired in December 2020, Fisch has used the phrase “trust the process” ad nauseam. Yet if this first game is any indication, the team is, indeed, trusting it.

“We asked them to have confidence without evidence, and trust the process of what we’re asking them,” he said. “You’ll have to ask them if it makes a difference for them.”