Every week throughout the season, we take a look back at the Arizona Wildcats’ previous game after re-watching it via the TV broadcast. Here are five key takeaways from the UA’s 41-34 loss to USC on Saturday:
1. UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT
So it turns out that Will Plummer can play some ball after all. Considered a lost cause by many UA fans – in spite of his lack of college experience – Plummer put together an encouraging performance against USC. Two things we liked most: (1) Plummer was decisive with the ball. When he saw or sensed that a receiver was coming open, he let it rip. Plummer was especially efficient on play-action passes, going 9 of 12, per Pro Football Focus, and taking advantage of the openings over the middle that play fakes can create. And (2) Plummer managed the game well. Two of his best runs – including his 16-yard touchdown – came against drop coverage; Plummer quickly spotted open space and took off. He also recognized when receivers weren’t open and threw the ball away instead of forcing it into coverage. PFF credited Plummer with four throwaways. Add to that three dropped passes, and Plummer’s adjusted completion rate climbs to 76.7%. He wasn’t perfect, missing on a handful of throws, including a possible TD to Dorian Singer on first-and-goal from the 8 in the fourth quarter. But Plummer took a major step forward.
2. PACE AND SPACE
USC primarily used two tactics to defeat the Arizona defense. One was tempo. By playing fast, the Trojans caused all sorts of problems for the Wildcats. Sometimes they weren’t completely set. Sometimes they had too many players on the field (again). Sometimes they were just gassed. That was particularly evident late in the game and also a byproduct of the defensive line being depleted by injuries. Arizona played without Kyon Barrs and lost Mo Diallo and Paris Shand during the game. Jalen Harris played 83 snaps, per PFF. Trevon Mason played 71. That’s a lot to ask of down linemen. The second tactic was creating matchups – or mismatches – in space. Everyone in college football is a mismatch against Drake London, who imposed his will on the Wildcats in multiple ways before getting hurt. While the overall coverage by cornerbacks Christian Roland-Wallace and Isaiah Rutherford wasn’t as tight as it needed to be, the Trojans really exposed the Wildcats’ safeties – their backup safeties, to be specific. With Jaxen Turner ejected for targeting and Gunner Maldonado injured, Jaydin Young and Rhedi Short had to step in at the safety spots. It was a particularly rough night for Young, a second-year freshman whose inexperience showed vs. USC’s skilled wideouts.
3. GETTING IN THE WAY
We don’t typically blame the officiating for the outcome of games, and it’d be a stretch to say it cost Arizona this one. But there were so many strange and questionable calls that we couldn’t just let it go. The tone was set on the opening drive when Rutherford was flagged for an iffy pass-interference foul. Soon after, Turner was ejected for targeting. Did he lower his head? Yes. But it was more accidental than malicious. On USC’s second touchdown, Harris clearly got held by Jalen McKenzie. It happened right near QB Kedon Slovis, in plain sight. No flag was thrown. Later in the first quarter, on a critical fourth-and-1, the line judge – who couldn’t see the ball – gave Trojans tailback Keaontay Ingram at least an extra half yard, giving USC a first down. In the second quarter, the officials picked up a flag after initially determining that Arizona guard Donovan Laie was guilty of holding – which he definitely appeared to be. Even the ESPNU announcers were complaining about the plethora of penalties – 21 in all for 230 yards. Many calls were legitimate, of course. But the officiating crew seemed to be inserting itself into the game in an unnecessary way that only served to diminish the product.
4. THIS TIME IT’S PERSONNEL
Each week we provide some notes on individual players, so here goes … Jamarye Joiner again proved to be an effective complement to Plummer, but a knee injury suffered in the second half puts Joiner’s status in doubt for homecoming against Cal. ... UA coach Jedd Fisch had high praise for freshman receiver Dorian Singer, a walk-on who looked like he belonged in his first extensive action as a collegian. ... Guard Josh Baker, a second-year freshman, continues to go through growing pains. He’s been the least consistent of Arizona’s linemen. Hopefully he can learn from these experiences. ... Shand, considered a project coming out of high school, is playing better, sooner, than most expected. He can play inside or outside, giving Don Brown a valuable chess piece for the next few seasons. ... Anthony Pandy’s pick-six transpired exactly as he described it afterward. He suspected the outside slant was coming, read Slovis’ eyes and jumped into the passing lane. ... Roland-Wallace had the primary coverage duties against London, who did his best work on in-breaking routes. Roland-Wallace couldn’t get his hands on London at the line of scrimmage nearly enough. ... USC also did a lot of damage on bubble screens. The Trojans block those plays way better than the Wildcats do, perhaps a product of practicing them more often as part of the Air Raid offense.
5. BREAKTHROUGH COMING?
In some ways, we’ve been here before. Arizona pieces together an encouraging stretch or half, and we think the Wildcats are ready to break through and win a game. In some ways, this feels different. The most encouraging aspect of Saturday’s performance was that the offense – which had looked lifeless since Week 1 with anybody but Jordan McCloud at quarterback – took significant strides. Passes suddenly were being completed downfield and on time. If Plummer can build on his performance against USC, Arizona should have a real shot against Cal (even if the opening spread of 12 points suggests otherwise). It’s amazing what competent QB play can do for a team. It’s not as if the Wildcats ran the ball exceptionally well or played good defense (although it was respectable in the second half). But they were able to hit on passes beyond 10 yards. They played pitch-and-catch in manageable third-down situations. They kept turnovers to a minimum. And they continued to play with tremendous effort. That’s been a constant during Fisch’s first season, and it’s a great sign as he continues to craft a culture and build a foundation.