Arizona remains one of the worst offensive teams in the first quarter this season, its only score coming on the opening drive of the opener against NAU. Against FBS opponents, the Wildcats and Utah State are the only ones not to pout points on the board in the opening period.
But for as bad as the UA has looked in the first 15 minutes, it’s looked pretty darn good the other 45. Both on offense and defense.
“We’ve outscored everyone we played the second, third and fourth quarter,” UA coach Jedd Fisch said Monday.
Arizona is plus-5 in scoring in second quarters this season, plus-6.4 in the third and plus-3.6 in the fourth. It also has outgained its opponents in terms of yards per play in the final three periods, including an impressive 6.46-4.09 edge in the fourth quarter.
UTEP is the only team to gain more than 67 yards against Arizona’s defense in the fourth, and in the three closest games—the one-score losses to Mississippi State and Washington and the one-point win at Stanford—the Wildcats are holding those teams to 3.52 yards per play.
One reason for those strong defensive finishes? The heavy defensive rotation up front. Arizona has used 12 different players for those four spots, the newest addition being redshirt freshman Isaiah Johnson to the interior for seven snaps against Washington.
“I think being able to keep everybody fresh gives our team the best chance to win, get after the quarterback,” said edge Taylor Upshaw, whose 220 snaps (out of 335) is the most of any defensive lineman.
Arizona has seven of its 13 sacks in the second half, four in the fourth quarter. That includes two last week of Washington’s Michael Penix Jr., who had only been sacked once in the previous four games.
From defending one Heisman candidate to another
Penix threw for 363 yards but didn’t throw a touchdown pass against the UA, only the second time in 18 games with the Huskies that he hasn’t found the end zone with his arm. But he also rarely leaves the pocket, while this week’s opposing quarterback is much more willing to scramble and take off.
USC’s Caleb Williams, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, has run for 144 yards and three TDs on non-sack plays. He’s scored on a 46-yard run and often takes advantage of a play breaking down to find a receiver open downfield.
“He could beat you over with its arm, he could beat you with his legs,” UA defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen said. “He’s a strong guy back there, it’s hard to bring him down so we got to do a great job keeping them in the pocket this week. A lot of the explosive plays are coming when scrambling around making big plays.”
A 74.1 percent passer overall, Williams completes only 52.9 percent of throws when pressured. But of those 18 completions, five have gone for TDs.
Another ‘do it all’ back for Arizona
Michael Wiley is the school career leader in receptions by a running back, with 110, and he’s also been Arizona’s most dependable ball carrier in clutch situations the last few seasons. But Wiley is dealing with an ankle injury, one that knocked him out early at Stanford and kept him from playing against Washington (and likely this weekend at USC).
In his place has been a committee of Jonah Coleman, DJ Williams and Rayshon ‘Speedy’ Luke, who in the past two weeks have combined for 215 rushing yards and seven catches. All of the receptions have been by Coleman, who has seven the past two games and 12 for the season.
Just par for the course for the sophomore, who says he can do it all.
“I can make guys miss, I’ve been working on that this year and in the offseason,” he said Tuesday. “I can run through you, over you and around you, and I can catch the ball. So I’m pretty much an all-around guy.”
Coleman leads all Arizona backs in yards gained after contact, at 4.94. That’s up significantly from his freshman year average of 3.04, the product of a lot of offseason work as well as a body type that isn’t exactly the easiest to bring down.
“He’s got some natural leverage,” offensive coordinator Brennan Carroll said of the 5-foot-9, 225-pound Coleman. “He’s tough to form tackle, but he’s really done a great job of building his body up. He’s gotten really strong in the offseason, he’s been able to be more explosive. Some of the times he’d get tackled last year, I don’t think they’d get him this year.”
Coleman owes a lot of his improved skill set to Wiley, whom he says he’s learned so much from the past two seasons.
“I tried to take some of the great plays that he’s made and incorporate into my game, like the stiff arm, making guys miss in the secondary,” Coleman said. “He’s taught me a lot. I’m draining his brain before he leaves.”
No friends this week
Any time Arizona plays in California there are emotions to deal with for many Wildcats who are getting a chance to play close to home, and often against former high school teammates. This year’s UA roster includes 42 former Cali residents.
But this time around there’s the added drama of having to face off against a trio of former college teammates who are now at USC: wide receiver Dorian Singer, defensive lineman Kyon Barrs and cornerback Christian Roland-Wallace.
Fisch said Monday his team needs to look at those Trojans like anyone else on the opponent, and save the catching up for after the game. Coleman echoed as much when asked about his former teammates.
“Those are my boys, but we ain’t got friends this week,” he said. “They’re on the other side, we’re over here.”
While the Arizona/USC rivalry will be a new one for Upshaw, who transferred from Michigan (with a short stop at Colorado in the spring) and is from Florida, containing emotions is also something he says he has to work on. Upshaw leads the Wildcats with 4.5 sacks but also has the most penalties on the team with five, not including a pair of declined or offset infractions.
Several of those flags have either been for a late/illegal hit on the quarterback or something occurring after a play.
“It just comes down to having to be smarter,” Upshaw said. “Playing with a lot of passion out there it gets real chippy. It’s emotional, so for me just playing smarter is something I’m going to put emphasis on going forward this season.”