Since his arrival nearly three years ago, Jedd Fisch has consistently made the right moves and decisions.
Saturday night in Los Angeles he made a wrong decision, one that may very well have cost his team a win.
After the game he made public another decision, one that cannot be considered the wrong one – yet – but will certainly be debated.
First thing’s first: When the Wildcats scored on a Noah Fifita touchdown to Jacob Cowing in the first overtime, they absolutely should have attempted a two-point conversion. Heavy underdogs, Arizona had within their reach an opportunity to pull off the upset.
Convert and Fisch has a signature win and the victory puts Arizona in great position to reach a bowl game. Fail and, well, you weren’t supposed to win anyway but at least you were aggressive and put the result squarely in your own hands.
“We thought about it right away, in the first overtime, but we really liked how we were playing defense,” Fisch said of going for two. “I think we held Caleb (Williams) down to the lowest passing yards he had since Week 4 of last year or something like that.
“We felt like we didn’t need to do that. If you felt like you needed to do it because you think you have to hit a prayer on offense or you can’t stop the ball, maybe, but I didn’t feel that way at all.”
Fisch also admitted he didn’t realize that Arizona would be forced to attempt a two-point conversion in the second overtime, an error that is quite unbecoming of a third-year college football head coach.
Now we’ll never know what would have happened had Arizona attempted the two-point conversion in the first overtime. Given how their attempts at such a play went when forced to make them, it’s possible the Cats would have lost right then and there.
We’ll never know.
Getting second-guessed or, in some cases, questioned in the moment is part of the job of a head coach. None are immune to this, though the very best get the benefit of the doubt in most cases.
For all the good things he has done, Fisch has not yet won enough to warrant such a perspective. That's why the decision he announced after Saturday’s loss, that Jayden de Laura will once again be the team’s starting QB when healthy, has been met with a healthy dose of skepticism.
Asked after the loss about Fifita, Fisch said, “I thought he played a fantastic game” before answering “no” when questioned on whether or not that performance changed the team’s quarterback situation.
Indeed Fifita, the redshirt freshman, has played well in his first two career starts. His 303-yard, 5-touchdown, one-interception performance against USC gave the Wildcats a chance at the upset. And when you add it to his effort the prior week against Washington you start to paint the picture of a QB who Arizona can probably win some games with.
Of course Arizona did not win either of the games Fifita has started, though the level of competition surely had something to do with that.
Regardless, had Fisch chosen to anoint Fifita the starter or at least say something to the effect of, “we’ll continue to evaluate the position and go with whoever we think gives us the best chance to win,” many an Arizona fan would have nodded in approval, if not outright erupted in celebration.
And who could blame them? Although de Laura was pretty dang good last season, his performances thus far in 2023 have left much to be desired. Combined with his off-field issues and the knowledge that he probably isn’t coming back next year and you have a pretty strong case to go with the younger, well-liked backup.
But Fisch apparently isn’t even considering that. For better or worse, de Laura is his guy.
A case can absolutely be made for going back to de Laura when he’s healthy. Despite his struggles the veteran offers a level of playmaking that Fifita has not yet displayed, and he has a history of leading teams – including this one – to victory. Further, Fifita threw an interception in each of his two starts, turnovers that were as ugly as they were harmful. He also had some crucial misfires.
Did Fifita take the job? No. Has de Laura played well enough to have a stranglehold on the job? Also no.
When looking at his quarterbacks, Fisch at least has the luxury of choosing between players who have shown they can produce on the big stage. Maybe in the coach’s mind there really is no decision to make. De Laura was the starter when he got hurt, and he’s the starter when he returns to the field.
Full stop. End of discussion.
Given the pressure Fisch is facing here in his third season, with a roster that appears good enough to reach a bowl, the decision could have some pretty heavy ramifications. If de Laura returns and gets back to being the player he was last season (the good version, anyway) the coach will look like a genius. Conversely, if de Laura struggles and gets pulled or struggles and doesn’t the coach will looks like someone who doesn’t have a good read on what’s best for his team.
Coaches are not perfect. They have many decisions to make, often times in the moment, with plenty of pressure and no guaranteed outcomes. For the most part it’s been hard to argue with what Fisch has chosen to do as he has overseen the rebuilding of a program that was arguably the worst in Power 5 just three seasons ago.
But in improving the roster and raising the expectations, Fisch has invited more scrutiny upon himself.
Whereas before Arizona was expected to lose no matter what the coach decided to do, now there is a risk of Arizona losing because of what the coach decided to do.