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What to watch for when Arizona football visits Mississippi State

arizona-wildcats-football-preview-mississippi-state-bulldogs-sec-pac12-analysis-2023 Photo by Christopher Hook/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

A year ago at this time, Arizona was coming off a huge season-opening win at San Diego State that provided the first clue that Jedd Fisch’s rebuild might actually work. Then the Wildcats returned to reality with a deflating 39-17 home loss to Mississippi State, showing how much work still needed to be done to get the program back to respectability.

“We had our worst game against them a year ago,” Fisch said Thursday. “We need to be much better offensively.”

Arizona is playing at an SEC school for the first time since 2004, when it was bludgeoned 45-3 at LSU in a game that saw Willie Tuitama get knocked all over the place. The Wildcats have never won a road game against an SEC opponent, their only win against the league coming in 1976 when they beat Auburn in Tucson.

“I really believe that we’re going into a great environment, great SEC culture, and being able to bring our team there our guys are excited, ready and willing for whatever’s about to come our way,” Fisch said.

Here’s what to watch for when the UA visits Starkville on Saturday:

Another retooled offensive line?

True freshman Raymond Pulido appears unlikely to play again after getting in a bike accident on Aug. 31, two days before he was expected to start at right guard. The Wildcats ended up starting redshirt senior Sam Langi at RG, where he played 32 of 54 snaps, with redshirt sophomore JT Hand logging the other 22.

Langi is in the mix to start again, but Arizona worked this week on alternate plans that include moving sophomore Jonah Savaiinaea back to the position he played in 2022 and for which he earned Freshman All-America honors. If that were to be the case, redshirt sophomore Joe Borjon, who subbed in for senior Jonah Morgan at left tackle for most of the second half against NAU, would make his first career start at RT.

“We’re working through a couple of combinations,” Fisch said. “Whether that be Sam and Jonah, or with Jonah and Joe, whether that be Joan and Leif (Magnuson). All three of those combinations are all working together right now. Joe Borjon and Jonah are a pretty good combination over there. They bring great size.”

Magnuson, a redshirt sophomore, played in the final four games of the 2021 season but otherwise hasn’t seen the field in his three-plus years at Arizona.

Balance is what you make it

Arizona was about 65 percent pass last season, in terms of the pre-snap play calls, but in the opener against NAU it lined up for 29 pass plays compared to 25 that called for a run.

Mississippi State was even more off its 2022 numbers, lining up to run the ball more than throw it for the first time since the 2019 season. That happened to have been the last time the late Mike Leach wasn’t coaching the Bulldogs, as during his tenure the 73/27 pass-run ratio from 2022 was the standard.

Leach was never known to run the ball much, but new coach Zach Arnett appears to want to be closer to 50-50.

“They made a commitment to be more balanced, a commitment to run the ball,” Fisch said. “That’s where it starts. Coach Leach did not have that same commitment. His commitment was to move the ball. He used to always say that balance was getting the ball to all the playmakers’ hands, not balancing run and pass.”

MSU’s offensive makeover also includes schematic changes, with a much greater use of the tight end and fewer instances where there are four receivers spread out wide. But the passing game can’t be completely ignored, not when Arizona could be without two starters in the secondary, as safety Gunner Maldonado has to sit out the first half after being ejected for targeting in the second half of the NAU game while nickel corner Treydan Stukes is “day-to-day” after leaving the opener after a hard hit.

Redshirt senior Martell Irby, put on scholarship just before the NAU game, would start for Stukes, while redshirt sophomore Isaiah Taylor is likely to take Maldonado’s spot on the back line.

Quality over quantity

Arizona’s 53 offensive plays against NAU was the second-fewest of the Fisch era, two more than the 51 the Wildcats ran in the Territorial Cup last November. What do those two games have in common?

The UA averaged more than nine yards per play in each. Against ASU it was because of rushing for 280 yards and five touchdowns, gaining 10 yards per carry, while against NAU it was from averaging more than 12 yards on first down and throwing only six incomplete passes.

The new clock rules, which eliminate stoppages for first downs except within the final two minutes of a half, also contributed to the lack of plays against NAU, but so did having the Lumberjacks have the ball the final 7:43 of the first half and then the first 5:28 after halftime, split over two drives with a blocked field goal return for a TD wedged in there.

“There were some parts of the game ... that I think is just a rarity and won’t happen again,” Fisch said. “I don’t know if you can necessarily count on (our) quarterback having a 50-yard run. A blocked field goal for a touchdown took away an offensive possession. I think we’ll get back to that 65 to 70 play range.

“I think we would have had more plays if we averaged less yards. I prefer to average more yards and have less plays. I would prefer to be explosive, if we can be explosive, and score fast if we can score fast.”

Staying on Arizona time

Any time a college football team travels across multiple time zones there’s always talk of “body clocks,” and whether players are able to get acclimated to playing earlier or later than normal. Arizona’s plan to keep this from being a thing at Mississippi State is, essentially, to ignore it.

“We’re just staying on Arizona time,” Fisch said. “We won’t change our clocks. We’ll play at 4:37 and we’ll treat it just like we’re playing USC last year at 4:30. Our entire itinerary will be based on Arizona time. And just like we practice at four o’clock every day, we’ll be playing the game at 430. So it’ll be right in our wheelhouse.”

Asked if heading east to play Mississippi State would serve as a preview of some of the longer road trips Arizona will face next year in the Big 12, Fisch said his wife asked him the same question the night before.

“I looked at it as, I’ve been in the NFL where you travel constantly, going through time zones,” he said. “I’ve been on some staffs where we’ve just never changed the time. I thought that was the most successful way to do it. So that’s the way we’re going to do it. We’re just going to live off of our body clock. It’s only a 1-day trip, if we were taking a 2-day trip we would change the clock.”

Streak watch

As mentioned above, Arizona has never won on the road against an SEC team, and since beating Auburn 31-19 in 1976 has dropped five in a row against that conference.

The Wildcats also haven’t won a true nonconference road game against a power opponent since the 1994 season opener when they went to Georgia Tech and pulled out a 19-14 victory. They’re 0-8 since then, as wins during that snap at BYU, TCU and Utah during that span don’t count since those schools were not in power conferences at the time.

Last year Arizona ended a couple notable streaks by winning at San Diego State. It was the program’s first win on natural grass (other than in Colorado) since shifting its own field to turf and it was the first win in California since 2017.

The UA’s last win in the Central Time Zone came in 2013, when it beat Boston College in the AdvoCare V100 Bowl in Shreveport, La.