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What to watch for when Arizona football hosts Mississippi State

arizona-wildcats-mississippi-state-bulldogs-preview-mike-leach-jedd-fisch-jacob-cowing-sec-pac12 Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Arizona passed its first test of the 2022 season, winning at San Diego State to match its win total from a year ago. But now comes a much tougher assignment in the form of Mississippi State, an SEC opponent with a potent offense and an underrated defense.

“Schematically, we’ve got a great challenge ahead of us,” UA coach Jedd Fisch said Thursday. “And we have to continue to improve in order for us to be able to be the type of program that one day we want to be, and we need to take this opportunity on Saturday night to be the next step of the build.”

Arizona is 1-9-1 all-time against the SEC, its only victory coming over Auburn in 1976. The Wildcats’ last matchup with that conference was a disaster, a 45-3 loss at LSU in 2006.

Mississippi State (1-0) is listed as an 11-point favorite, according to DraftKings Sportsbook. The last time Arizona won as a double-digit underdog was in 2014, when as 21.5-point dogs it shocked Oregon 31-24 in Eugene en route to the Pac-12 South Division title.

Here’s what to watch for when the Wildcats and Bulldogs battle in a late one (8 p.m. PT kickoff):

The time of possession game

Mississippi State averaged 54.2 pass attempts per game last season, tops in FBS, the product of coach Mike Leach’s Air Raid attack that he’s used since being head coach at Texas Tech and again at Washington State. The last time a non-Leach team led the nation in pass attempts was 2016, when WSU was third.

But for as much as the Bulldogs will throw, their style and college rules make it so they hold onto the ball for a long time. In last week’s 49-23 win over Memphis, in which quarterback Will Rogers was 38 of 49 for 450 yards for five touchdowns and an interception, MSU held the ball for more than 41 minutes.

Arizona, in its 38-20 win at San Diego State, held the ball for 32:37. That’s more than two minutes more than it averaged per game in 2021.

The Wildcats want to control the clock by keeping their offense on schedule, though Fisch said time of possession is most beneficial to a team’s defense.

“If offensively you’re holding the ball you’re able to keep the defense off the field, which is good,” he said. “When it comes down to it, though, I think you have to do what’s best and move the football on offense. I believe that the other teams have to do (their) best to move the ball offensively on their end.”

Don’t forget the defense

Leach’s gets so much attention, and rightfully so, but Mississippi State isn’t a slouch on defense. Against Memphis it allowed only 297 yards and made nine stops on 12 third-down conversions, and the Bulldogs return the bulk of a defense that was fifth overall in the SEC last season and third-best against the run.

If the 3-3-5 that MSU lines up in looks similar to what SDSU did last week it’s because it is. Defensive coordinator Zach Arnett joined Leach’s staff after nine seasons with the Aztecs, including 2019 when they were fifth in the nation in total defense.

“You can see foundational principles, I guess I would say, with what they try to do, what they do in their fronts, what they do in their coverage,” Fisch said. “There’s certainly some things he’s taken and made his own. And he gives a little different look than what San Diego State gives you, but you can see that they’re from the same family.”

While Arizona was productive on offense in the opener, the line was a bit iffy on some pass plays. Offensive coordinator/OL coach Brennan Carroll said that was partly due to some of his blockers being overset and struggling with SDSU’s speed rush on the edge.

MSU will be more full frontal, with bigger and stronger players, too.

“This is a little different challenge this week, they got a bigger stronger lineup, they’re more of a bull rush unit,” he said.

How Cowing is covered

The secret is out about wide receiver Jacob Cowing, who had eight catches for 152 yards and three TDs in his Arizona debut. But a savvy college football fan already knew of him from what he did at UTEP, where in 2021 he had 69 receptions for 1,367 yards and seven TDs.

Does that mean Mississippi State will guard Cowing differently than did SDSU, which stuck to single coverage and paid the price? Adjust at your own peril, Fisch said.

“Good players find ways to get open,” he said. “If you’re going to defend him differently than that means you’re going to defend T-Mac differently, because now your defense isn’t going to be the same. If you defend TMac and Jacob definitely then you have to defend Dorian (Singer) differently, or the running game differently. How many guys are you going extend out to cover guys?”

Fisch said the key will be recognizing early how MSU deals with Cowing, as well as all aspects of Arizona’s offense, and adjust.

Swords, suits, cowbells and recruits

It didn’t get any TV time, but Arizona’s new “turnover sword” made a brief appearance in the team’s recap video on Twitter.

Turns out the prop, which is shaped like a cactus and is apparently sharp enough to deflate footballs on after each takeaway, was defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen’s idea.

“Everytime anybody on the defense gets a turnover ball, we just get the ball and stick it on the sword,” defensive tackle Kyon Barrs said. “Then we hold it up as a defense and just celebrate that turnover.”

While the sword is something to look for during the game, you’ll have to be around two hours before kickoff to see Arizona’s new “business” attire.

Players and coaches wore suits onto the team charter for the San Diego State game and will do the same for Saturday’s Wildcat Walk into Arizona Stadium. The suits and ties were provided by the athletic department after members of the team’s leadership council asked to do so during the offseason.

“They said ‘Coach, for our travel, can we eliminate the warm-up suits and go more to a jacket and tie mentality, and treat it more like a business trip, so to speak,” Fisch said. “All of our kids got measured, tailored up. That’s what they asked for, that was the players all the way.”

While there will be some different sights to take in, one thing you supposedly won’t be hearing are cowbells. MSU’s signature noisemakers are not allowed, according to the Pac-12 and NCAA, though in the SEC they’ve made an exception for usage in between plays.

Don’t be surprised if a few Bulldogs manage to smuggle them in, leading to some “clanga” sounds from their cheering sections.

With this being the first home game, it’s also the first chance for Arizona to have some potential recruits in attendance. Several are expected to attend including a pair of 2024 prospects from Tucson: 5-star edge rusher Elijah Rushing and 3-star offensive lineman Sa’Kylee Woodard.

A pretty big crowd, by Arizona standards

Heeke said Thursday that Arizona had already sold 41,000 tickets for the game, which by itself would make it the largest crowd since 43,258 attended the UCLA game last October.

“We expect a pretty significant walk up,” Heeke said.

Arizona Stadium’s capacity has gone down as renovations and upgrades have happened, now sitting at 50,600. If the game were to sell out it would mark the largest crowd since 51,805 came for the 2018 Territorial Cup.

The stadium record is 59,920 against ASU in 1996.

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