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What to watch for when Arizona football opens Pac-12 play at Stanford

arizona-wildcats-football-preview-stanford-cardinal-buddy-teevens-benjamin-yurosek-pac12-opener-2023 Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images

There are nine games on a Pac-12 schedule, and in order to become bowl-eligible for the first time since 2017 Arizona needs to win at least four of them. And the first of those contests figures to be one of the most winnable.

The Wildcats (2-1) open their final Pac-12 slate on Saturday afternoon at Stanford, a team in transition that has a new coaching staff and is coming off a home loss to an FCS school. It’s the Cardinal version of the “Year Zero” the UA went through in 2021.

Arizona is currently favored by double digits, the first time that’s happened in a Pac-12 road game since 2013.

“We have to win this week,” UA coach Jedd Fisch said Thursday. “That’s the message to the guys, is to come back home 3-1. That’s the only focus. We have to play our best football in Palo Alto on Saturday.”

Stanford (1-2, 0-1 Pac-12) has won six straight in the series, and Arizona’s last victory in Palo Alto came in 2006. A UA victory would be its first to open conference play since 2019.

Here’s what to watch for when the Wildcats and Cardinal tangle in the Bay Area:

Don’t let the tight end get loose

Through the first three games of 2023, opposing tight ends have caught two passes for 18 yards. Stanford’s Benjamin Yurosek could top those numbers on the Cardinal’s first possession, as the 6-foot-4, 242-pound senior leads the team with 13 catches and 192 yards.

“Their tight end is not just used heavily but he’s probably the best receiver on their team,” Fisch said. “He’s a very talented player. It’s different than UTEP’s use of tight ends where most of them were blocking tight ends. This is now truly a big receiver.”

Fisch said Arizona will have to decide whether to put a linebacker, safety or nickel corner on him when in man coverage, but the real test will be when the defense is in zone.

“That’s where tight ends can really hurt you, in zone coverages, where they can just find those vacated areas in the middle of the field,” he said. “So we have to be very alert. All week long we’ve set three different tight ends down there to give them all the different looks they could possibly get with our scout team.”

It helps that Arizona’s defense has had plenty of practice against a big pass-catching tight end. UA senior Tanner McLachlan has 42 receptions in his 15 games with the team, including eight this season.

“When you look at what our defense dealt with everyday in training camp, they dealt with Tanner McLachlan,” Fisch said. “I think he’s one of better tight ends in the country. So they’re accustomed to tight ends stretching the field, they’re accustomed to what we do on offense where we flex him out. (Yurosek) plays the outside receiver position, he plays inside, he plays in the core, like our guys does. So I do think that our guys will have a little bit more familiarity with defending a tight end because of the way we play, versus the last couple of opponents.”

A quiet place

The last time Arizona played on the road, two weeks ago at Mississippi State, it had to deal with the near-constant buzz/rattle of MSU fans’ signature cowbells. This time, it’s the absence of sound that could be an issue.

Stanford Stadium isn’t exactly known for having raucous crowds. One engagement-seeking Twitter account ranked it as the quietest stadium in college football (with ASU’s recently renamed Mountain America Stadium second). Probably not coincidentally, there was no music emanating from UA practices this week.

“Our responsibility as a team is to show up there and create our own energy,” Fisch said. “You don’t need the fans to not like you to get excited. You don’t need the fans to boo you when you run out. We don’t need our own fans to get us going, like you would at a home game. This is up to us. The 74 players that we bring, the 30 staff members that we bring, those are the responsible people to get us to play a much better game than we did the last time we were in Northern California.”

Fisch is referring to last year’s Pac-12 opener, at Cal, where Arizona gave up 354 rushing yards and lost 49-31.

“We did not bring our own energy,” he said. “We did not play to the standard that we want to play. We’ve learned from that, and I’ve certainly emphasized that.”

Remembering Buddy

Before the game there is expected to be a moment of silence for Buddy Teevens, the Dartmouth coach who passed away earlier this week from injuries suffered in a vehicle accident earlier this year. The 66-year-old Teevens coached Stanford from 2002-04, and he was also on the staff at Florida in 1999-2000 when Fisch was a graduate assistant.

Fisch called Teevens “a really important person in my life” who he credits for getting his coaching career started.

“Not many people were giving me much of an opportunity, and Coach Teevens did that,” Fisch said. “I wound up becoming very close with him. Ended up babysitting his kids on road trips early on. Our friendship never ended. We were close throughout. I think there’s a lot of irony involved of going to Stanford this weekend, where Buddy used to be the head football coach.”

Wiley’s next milestone

Michael Wiley is coming off a season-high 83 rushing yards, along with his first touchdown of the year, and added a 15-yard catch to give him 110 for his career. That’s most by a running back in school history, and with 24 more receiving yards he’ll join Vance Johnson as the only Wildcats with 1,500 rushing and 1,000 receiving yards.

Johnson, who played at Arizona from 1981-84 before getting taken in the second round of the 1985 NFL Draft by the Denver Broncos, finished his career with 1,871 rushing yards and 1,014 as a receiver.

Quarterback Jayden de Laura can also climb up the UA passing charts with another big game. He’s 325 yards behind Matt Scott for 12th on the school career list, and two more TD passes will give him 35 and move him into a tie for 10th with Jason Johnson.