The nonconference is over, and now comes Arizona’s final go-around in the Pac-12. That 9-game slate begins Saturday with a trip to Stanford, where the UA last played in 2019 and where it hasn’t won since 2006.
The Cardinal (1-2, 0-1 Pac-12) are coming off a 30-23 home loss to FCS Sacramento State, which happens to be the school they hired first-year head coach Troy Taylor from. They also got thumped 56-10 at USC two weeks ago.
“This is our first conference game, they’ve already had a conference game,” UA coach Jedd Fisch said Monday. “They’ve gone through that experience, so far we have not. They’re very well-coached team. I think Coach (Troy) Taylor does a great job. You could see the type of program he built at Sac State. And now the type of program that he’s trying to build currently at Stanford. So we know we have our work cut out for us with a very good football team. Just beginning preparations on that, last evening and then this morning, and so I’ll be a little bit far away from knowing too much about them right now.”
Here’s what Fisch had to say during his press conference to open Stanford week:
On only scoring 31 points with 544 yards of offense and 8.8 yards gained per play: “We could have kept going on the final drive, probably would have gotten us some points. We had a field goal blocked, annd then we had a turnover. We were 5 of 5 in the red zone ... and four of them were touchdowns. So we did miss on an opportunity in the red zone one time. I think probably most of the time you’d have more than that. But the way the game was going, it was a situation where you get 10 more points, maybe, if you do a couple of things better, and then probably sit there at 41. Usually you get short fields, based on turnovers. We got the one, and when we got that one turnover we scored a touchdown. A lot of times if those happen earlier in the games you get a multitude of turnovers. and then you get a lot of short field and we’d be able to start piling up some points. We had to come the long way. I think we have 15 explosive plays out of 69 snaps or something to that effect.”
On if Arizona will need to score more to win in the Pac-12: “Yeah, I’d love to see us score more. I think we’re averaging 31 points a game. I think we’ll probably score more as we get to a situation where there’s probably a touchdown in each game we left out, and there’s probably going to be another touchdown that could show up in each game based on a takeaway or something to that effect. But our offense is clicking at a pretty good level right now, and we certainly are in a good place regarding yards per play. Regarding our run game and passing, the balance, and our red zone offense. So when that’s in a good spot, we have a good chance to be successful. You give away too many possessions, time of possession, some of those things affected some scoring, certainly in the NAU game. And then also with Mississippi State with the turnovers.”
On having 32 runs and 32 passes against UTEP, and the desire to have offensive balance: “The game went a certain direction, that we were able to stay very balanced. As I’ve said before, we really like our running backs. And I think we have a really good set of running backs. Sometimes the games don’t allow you to stay with the run as much as you want. Sometimes the games allow you to run the ball more than you ever expected to run it. We would love to be in that world. You’d love to be able to have that balance, to be able to mix some runs in on third down, that allows you to kind of be 50/50.”
On how running back usage is determined: “It goes into a lot of things. It goes into what we’re calling, it goes into where they are physically. How many runs they’ve had. There’s a rotation that we set ahead of time of how we want to make sure we get different backs different touches. There’s certain plays that we call for certain guys, but a lot of times it’s just a matter of who’s up. Who’s up at that time. And we’ve just been trying to do the best we can to get the rotation as clean as we can get it, getting guys in and out quickly. But there’s always going to be some challenges there. And then obviously with Wiley, he does so many things well, we always lean on him at certain times in the game.”
On the defensive line: “The most important thing we’ve seen is that rotation has really continued to help us. So we don’t just have four D-linemen or five D-linemen playing in games. We have eight to 10 defensive linemen. So when you’re able to start getting them in and out, they’re able to come in fresh. And not just fresh physically, but fresh mentally. They’re able to get a few breaths on the sideline, take a few reps to be next to their coach, see it from a different perspective and then go into it with a little bit more clarity of what’s happening.”
On the defensive communication: “The communication that goes on between the linebackers and the front is critical to the success of the team. And I think a lot of that starts with Jacob Manu and his ability to communicate with the whole front. As well as Dalton Johnson and his ability to communicate with Jacob and the front four on exactly how he wants the defense set.”
On safety Dalton Johnson: “Dalton is playing explosive. He’s playing with incredible efforts, which is permitting him to just chase the ball. And I think what some of the things that we’re noticing is, when he’s on the backside and he sees the run away, or sees the throw, he’s very willing to give that 100 percent effort.”
On having length at cornerback: “We’ve tried a lot to kind of emulate our defensive structure around the Seahawks from, let’s call it 2014 to 2018 era, that time where you had Richard Sherman, you had corners with great length. Their length allows you to protect against the go ball, because it’s challenging to complete deep throws down the field with high arc to it when your 6-foot-4 defender is on top of your receiver. And just the ability to play through a ball, and the ability to be able to play hybrid ball is something that Tacario, Ephesians and even Stukes has good length. I know he plays a lot inside for us but he can go outside as well. The three of them on the field, you’re talking about 6-2 plus, obviously the two 6-4 corners on the outside. If we can continue to be physical, which Ephesians and Tacario are showing more and more of, then you’re able to play with that type of length and be physical on the outside. That becomes a far greater challenge if you’re coaching on the offensive side of the ball, as we do every day against them. And certainly they’re getting better.”
On linebacker Jacob Manu: “It’s almost hard to believe he’s still only a true sophomore. I feel like we’ve talked so much about Jacob and his growth, because his growth is like happening week to week, not just wow, I remember back three years ago when. Because of the fact that his first start was Week 3 of the season of one year ago, we’re really watching his growth happening every single week. He’s one of those people that he’s like a plant you keep watering. He wants more information. He wants to learn about offensive football, he wants to be able to be the type of player that can recognize things that happen before they happen and utilize formations to his advantage. So I’ve seen incredible growth with Jacob each week, not just from last year to this year, but obviously having an offseason with us, which he didn’t have a year ago. He didn’t come with the other guys. Remember, he wasn’t here in the spring, where T-Mac, Keyan and Noah were, so our first experience with Jacob was in training camp. Whereas now we had a whole offseason, after being a starter, and now seeing where he’s going. I think he’ll continue to grow.”
On how this year’s team looks entering Pac-12 play compared to in 2022: “We’re really healthy at this point. I can say that Raymond Pulido has been cleared to practice full contact. But we are 100 percent healthy as a football team. So that’s a great start. We have nine of 11 returners in our system on offense, which we didn’t have a year ago. Remember a year ago, most of those guys were going into their first Pac-12 game as a Wildcat, where now our offense is really going into their second season as Wildcats. So that’s a big difference in terms of their comfort level offensively. Defensively, we’re going into the game with a lot more confidence than we went into Pac-12 play a year ago, with a defense that has a lot of energy and enthusiasm surrounding it right now. A lot of things about defensive football is, do you walk in with confidence? Do you walk in the swagger? Do you feel good about the way you’re playing? And they’re now in year two of the system rather than Week 4 of a system? So the experience has really changed for us, and that’s where I’m more comfortable than before regarding where we are and where we’re sitting right now.”
On the Pac-12 home opener against Washington on Sept. 30: “We’re getting ready there for a sellout. Looks like we’re at about 47,000 tickets out already for that game.”