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Alamo Bowl: What to watch for when Arizona faces Oklahoma

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SAN ANTONIO—The wait is finally over. Not just the six years since Arizona last played in a bowl game, but also the month plus since the Wildcats’ last actual competition. That hiatus comes to an end Thursday night when No. 14 Arizona (9-3) takes on No. 12 Oklahoma (10-2) in the Alamo Bowl.

The last time the UA ended a long bowl drought, a 10-year absence in 2008, it was in the Las Vegas Bowl against BYU. The game was played before Christmas and the opponent was from the Mountain West Conference.

It’s a much different story this time around, as two of the three highest-ranked teams not to make a New Year’s Six bowl are clashing the night before the NY6 games begin. And the UA’s opponent, Oklahoma, has the sixth-most wins (944) in college football history, with the Sooners trying to reach 11 in a season for the 28th time in school history.

Arizona, for comparison, is seeking just the fourth 10-win season since 1930.

A loss won’t mean Arizona’s 2023 season was any less impressive, especially considering its just over two years removed from breaking a 20-game skid. A win, however, might just be the springboard the Wildcats need to take the next step into becoming a regular contender for the playoffs going into the 12-team era next year.

“I mean, the program is just getting built,” UA coach Jedd Fisch said Wednesday. “We’re just getting started. It has been awhile since we played a game. Those guys have been practicing 14, 15 times. I think all they want to do now is play another team and not look at one another.”

Here’s what to look for when Arizona and Oklahoma battle in San Antonio:

Oklahoma’s altered attack

Oklahoma is fifth in FBS in total offense, averaging 502.4 yards per game, and third in scoring at 43.2 points per contest. But that was with five-year vet Dillon Gabriel at quarterback and Jeff Lebby calling the plays. Gabriel has since transferred to Oregon for his final season of eligibility, while Lebby is the head coach at Mississippi State.

In their place are true freshman QB Jackson Arnold, a top-10 recruit in the 2023 class, and co-offensive coordinators that include Seth Littrell, a one-time UA assistant under Mike Stoops who was North Texas’ head coach from 2017-22.

Littrell said Tuesday that there wasn’t time to change too much with the offensive system, but it will no doubt look different simply because Arnold is a right-handed thrower who has attempted only 24 passes in his career and Gabriel was a lefty who ranks eighth in FBS history with 14,865 yards.

“It provides a great challenge because when you look at their offense and you look at statistically where they were with Coach Lebby and with Dillon, you see probably one of the best five offenses, not even probably, one of the best five offenses in the country,” Fisch said. “Now you’re sitting there and trying to make a determination when you’re game planning the offense with a different quarterback and a different coordinator.”

UA defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen said he’s looked back as far as Indiana, where Littrell was offensive coordinator in 2012-13, to study his play calling. Fisch, though, believes his defense—which is 27th in FBS at 20.8 points per game—will need to just rely on what it does best.

“At some point in time you have to play fundamental football and believe in what you see,” he said. “It’s three weeks, how much are you going to change in three weeks? It’s that fine line of chasing ghosts which all of us can do in the coaching profession.”

The revamped offensive line

UA offensive coordinator/offensive line coach referred to the team’s updated depth chart—which isn’t really that updated, since it’s had Jayden de Laura as the starting quarterback all season—when asked Tuesday about how he intended to deal with the opening at left tackle made by Jordan Morgan’s decision to opt out and prepare for the NFL Draft. That means redshirt sophomore Joe Borjon will be getting the start for Morgan, the third of his career and first on the left side.

Borjon, freshman Raymond Pulido and sophomore Jonah Savaiinaea had all been practicing at left tackle, right guard and right tackle but the plan to start will be to keep the last two in the spots they started most of the season.

Borjon has a solid 75.4 grade on 106 pass-blocking snaps, per Pro Football Focus, and while he yielded seven pressures he didn’t allow a sack. His best game, grade-wise, was a start at Mississippi State when he had to deal with the 12th-worst pass rushing team (by grade) in the country. Oklahoma is 56th, though its 19 sacks as a team are tied for 113th out of 133 FBS teams.

Though Arizona players and coaches have said all month it is treating the Alamo Bowl like a championship game, in reality the contest is meaningless in the overall scope of things much like nearly all bowls. A lot of teams aren’t going with their full allotment of players—Oklahoma coach Brent Venables said he has 70 available scholarship players, far below the 85-man cap—and there are plenty of new starters getting a chance to shine in this final contest.

The Wildcats aren’t in the same boat as the Sooners, with only Morgan missing from the starting lineups, allowing Fisch and Nansen to just stick with what’s been working during the 6-game win streak. But don’t be surprised if there aren’t quite a few wrinkles (read: trick plays) thrown in by both teams.

A prediction: de Laura will play at least one series at QB as a sendoff and thank you following his Christmas Day announcement he was re-entering the NCAA transfer portal after the Alamo Bowl. And running back Michael Wiley, one of the few Wildcats remaining from the Kevin Sumlin era, will attempt a pass to either JDL or Noah Fifita.

Record watch

Quite a few team records were set during Arizona’s 59-23 win over ASU last month, and more could be broken in this game if it becomes a shootout.

Receiver Jacob Cowing, the active FBS leader in receiving yards (4,325), is tied for the single-season school record of 11 TD catches (while Tetairoa McMillan is one behind at 10). Cowing is also 10 catches shy of the school mark of 93 set by Bobby Wade in 2002, and T-Mac needs 181 receiving yards—he had 266 against ASU—from breaking Dennis Northcutt’s school record of 1,422 in 1999.

Cowing needs only 28 yards to crack the FBS career top 10.

Already the career receptions by a tight end, with 76, Tanner McLachlan needs six more to pass Rob Gronkowski’s single-season school mark of 47 from 2008.

On the ground, Jonah Coleman is 149 yards shy of 1,000. Arizona’s last 1,000-yard rusher was JJ Taylor in 2018. Wiley, set to play in his 49th and final college game, needs 76 receiving yards to finish the season as the FBS active leader in yardage by a running back.

Fifita was almost certainly finish in the top 10 in single-season passing yards (he needs 16) despite not becoming the starter until the fifth game of 2023, and he’s only five TD passes from tying the season record. The completion percentage record is pretty much already his, at 73.56, with de Laura’s 69.53 percent this season currently second-best in school history.

On defense, Jacob Manu needs 12 tackles to be the first UA player to get to 120 in a season since Scooby Wright III (163) and Jared Tevis (120) in 2014, while another sack and a half for Taylor Upshaw would make him the first Wildcat with 10 since Wright had 14 in 2014.

And as long as Arizona doesn’t give up 75 points to Oklahoma it will finish the year with a scoring defense under 25 per game for the first time since 2013 (24.2). Holding the Sooners to single digits would mean a season scoring average of under 20 for the first time since 2006 (19.6).