On Saturday night, Arizona will have a chance to avenge one of the most embarrassing losses in program history when it opens the 2023 season against NAU. But can it really be considered a “revenge game” with so few participants still around from the previous meeting?
“I think our team is a little different than it was a couple of years ago,” UA coach Jedd Fisch said on Monday. “I know their team is different.”
Of the 110 players on the current roster, only 20 were around for the 21-19 loss to the Lumberjacks in 2021. Eleven played, with Michael Wiley, Jordan Morgan and Gunner Maldonado starting.
A few more of the holdovers from two years ago, such as Josh Baker, Treydan Stukes and Isaiah Taylor, are expected to play big roles in the rematch.
Overall, though, this is a completely different team from the one that blew a 13-0 lead and lost to an FCS (or non-Division I) school for the first time since 1961. Same goes for NAU, which added 36 transfers this offseason and its starting quarterback from the 2021 visit to Tucson (Jeff Widener) is now a defensive back.
“We’ve talked about it a lot throughout the offseason and going into fall camp,” quarterback Jayden de Laura said. “Because we’re part of the Arizona football team now, it sits with us.”
De Laura joined the program a few months after that loss, while defensive lineman Bill Norton came along a year later. Neither has had the misfortune of being on the losing end of such a game, going a combined 4-0 against FCS opponents at Washington State and Georgia, respectively.
They don’t want to know what that’s like, nor do they want teammates from the ‘21 team to go through that again.
“I think we take burden of responsibility to make sure that something like that doesn’t happen again,” Norton said.
As painful as that result was for the players, it may have been even worse for the coaching staff. Fisch knew he was taking on a major rebuild when he was hired—“the last game in 2020, before we arrived, we recognized that this program was not in a good spot,” he said—but almost everyone had a win over NAU penciled in as a given during that first season.
“It was a very difficult night to be a part, to be on that staff,” offensive coordinator Brennan Carroll said. “But it really showed how far we had to go. We weren’t really ready to win yet, we weren’t ready to be a good football team. It took a while. It’s going to take a process. It’s not something you can snap your fingers to fix.”
Said Fisch: “We called it Year Zero for a reason. We felt like we had to strip it down to the studs.”
Arizona would drop six more games after that one before snapping its school-record 20-game losing streak by beating Cal on Homecoming. There have been five more wins since then, including two of the last three contests in 2022, and this fall the Wildcats’ projected win total according to DraftKings Sportsbook is 5. And with odds of -120, the indication is the UA will go over that number, getting to at least six to become bowl-eligible for the first time since 2017.
That’s assuming it doesn’t overlook any beatable opponent.
“Coach Fisch has emphasized to us we’re going to treat every opponent the same, we’re going to go into every game with the same mindset,” Norton said.
Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.