SAN ANTONIO—It’s been more than three weeks since Arizona was officially invited to play in the Alamo Bowl, its first postseason game since 2017. Since then it’s been a lot of hurrying up and waiting, either in Tucson or for the past few days in and around San Antonio.
The matchup with No. 12 Oklahoma is still two days away, and the restlessness is starting to set in.
“It’s been 13 straight practices, I think they’re ready to play,” defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen said Tuesday during Arizona’s press conference at the Alamodome. “We’re looking forward to this matchup.”
With two of the top 15 teams in the final College Football Playoff rankings—Arizona is No. 14—the Alamo Bowl is arguably the best matchup outside the New Year’s Six and playoff games. There’s a trophy given to the winner, like in all bowls, but the UA’s players and coaches aren’t looking at this like just another game.
“This is our championship game,” defensive back Martell Irby said. “We’re not really riled up about sitting out, nobody wants to be on the sideline during this game. We all want to take part in it, because it means that much to us. We’ve been working since January to end this the right way. So we all want to take part in it. We all want to go have fun, and we all want to make memories with our brothers one last time.”
While Oklahoma has seen many notable players either enter the NCAA transfer portal or declare for the NFL Draft, Arizona’s only key departure is left tackle Jordan Morgan. Even backup quarterback Jayden de Laura, who announced Monday he intends to re-enter the transfer portal, is remaining with the team through the bowl game.
“He’s still with us, which is a testament to the kid, a testament of the program, that he wants to hang out and finish his last game here with his teammates,” offensive coordinator Brennan Carroll said of de Laura. “He’s been awesome all week. He’s been awesome all year.”
Nansen said the other UA players who have entered the portal were given the option to do so as well.
The Texas connections
Arizona has five players on its roster from Texas, most notably running back Michael Wiley, safety Dalton Johnson and kicker Tyler Loop. Each figures to have a healthy number of supporters at the Alamodome on Thursday, assuming they can find tickets for them all.
Wiley, from Houston, has he’s secured “about 23” tickets for family and friends, while Katy native Johnson needs even more.
“Like Mike, it was a struggle to get some tickets,” Johnson said. “I’m at about 30, 35 right now.”
The game is also a Homecoming of sorts for receiver Jacob Cowing, who played his first three college seasons in the state at UTEP. That included a 2020 game in the Alamodome against UT-San Antonio, when he had two catches for 58 yards and a touchdown.
Cowing is also one of the few Wildcats on the roster with bowl experience, playing with UTEP in the 2021 New Mexico Bowl.
“There’s a lot more events we’re able to do compared to the last one I was at,” he said. “I know the last time I was out here I didn’t really get to explore the city.”
The deep scout
Oklahoma has a new offensive coordinator—two, actually—and will have a true freshman (Jackson Arnold) make his first career start in the Alamo Bowl. That means none of the game film Nansen and his defensive staff have reviewed will look exactly like what the Sooners run out when they have the ball.
So be it, said Nansen.
“Whatever they put it on tape, that’s what they’re going to come out in,” he said. “We’re prepared for other things, knowing the history of the coordinator, where he came from, so we’re prepared in that way. And then obviously the quarterback is very talented, but he’s got a lot of skill guys are dangerous too. So we’re we just got to prepare the way we prepare. And I think the guys aren’t ready for it.”
Arnold, who was the No. 8 overall prospect in the 2023 recruiting class according to 247Sports, has appeared in six games this season and has thrown for 202 yards and two TDs while completing 18 of 24 passes, adding 78 rushing yards and a TD. His most recent notable action came last month in a 31-24 win at BYU when he was 5 of 9 for 33 yards.
“I think he’s pretty special,” Nansen said. “Obviously he was a highly recruited kid coming out of high school. We got a chance to watch him a little bit because he played a little bit in the BYU game. He knows the offense, he’s dangerous with his feet, so we got to make sure we account that.”
Old friends on the other sideline
The last time Arizona played in the Alamo Bowl, at the end of the 2010 season, it didn’t just have a first-time head coach in Mike Stoops. His offensive coordinator was Seth Littrell, who was on the UA staff from 2009-11 and called the plays those last two seasons in addition to coaching running backs and tight ends.
“We had a very fun coaching staff who went to bowl games and had some success,” Littrell said of his time in Tucson. “My wife’s second move, we were both young. My first child was born in Tucson. We have a lot of great memories in Tucson. It was a great place to live, great people.”
Littrell, who along with Joe Jon Finley was named Oklahoma’s co-offensive coordinator after Jeff Lebby left to take over the Mississippi State program, was an analyst with the Sooners during the regular season. That came after spending seven seasons as head coach at North Texas, where in 2022 one-time UA quarterback Grant Gunnell was on the roster.
After leaving Arizona Littrell was offensive coordinator at both Indiana and North Carolina. Nansen said he looked back at some film from those teams to help him prepare for Oklahoma’s potential attack.
“We had the time,” Nansen said.
Dating back to his time at UA, Littrell is 0-10 as either a coordinator or head coach in bowl games. Arizona lost the 2009 Holiday and 2010 Alamo bowls, while he was 0-3 as UNC’s coordinator and 0-5 at North Texas.
Littrell isn’t the only Oklahoma assistant with UA ties. The Sooners’ running backs coach is DeMarco Murray, who coached Arizona’s RBs in 2019.