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 21-19 loss to NAU on Saturday night:
1. QB CONUNDRUM
Or should we say another QB conundrum. Or an ongoing QB conundrum. Or a never-ending QB conundrum. Jedd Fisch is almost out of moves at this point. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him turn to Jordan McCloud for the Pac-12 opener at Oregon – where Arizona opened as a 27-point underdog – because, well, why not? McCloud provided a spark at the end of last week’s game, nearly led the Wildcats to the tying score and won’t be intimidated by Autzen Stadium with 17 Division I starts on his résumé. We described Will Plummer’s starting opportunity against NAU as a job interview, and it’s not as if he completely flopped. If you were to grade every one of his snaps – which Fisch and his staff do – most of them would go in the positive category. But he made a handful of killer mistakes that speak to his inexperience and impulsiveness. The pick-six at the end of the first half was the obvious one; Plummer locked onto Stanley Berryhill III, allowing Brady Shough to read the play, step in front of the pass and swing the game. Dropping a good enough shotgun snap on third-and-3 at the UA 46 late in the third quarter was nearly as damaging. It’s too soon to give up any of the quarterbacks, including the benched Gunner Cruz, and it might make sense for Fisch to reopen the competition after the Oregon game, when Arizona has a bye. But he needs to pick one and stick with one soon. The merry-go-round has to stop spinning at some point.
2. BLOCKING ISSUES
Arizona’s run blocking was the most disappointing aspect of game, and the misplays weren’t limited to the offensive line. The tight ends were inconsistent, as were the receivers. They’re trying, but sometimes we wonder if Fisch is putting them in the best position to succeed. On the second play of the game, Drake Anderson got dragged down for a 6-yard loss after BJ Casteel – a wide receiver – failed to block an edge rusher who was sailing up the field. Arizona used a similar blocking scheme on a different play in the third quarter. After faking a jet sweep, Plummer pitched the ball to Anderson. This time, Tayvian Cunningham – an even smaller wide receiver – was tasked with making the key block. More than one NAU defender was in the area – primarily because pulling tackle Jordan Morgan just ran past everyone – and the play resulted in a 1-yard loss. Morgan really struggled in this game, allowing edge pressures and failing to hit his targets on the move. We suspect he’s not close to 100% after missing the end of preseason camp and the season opener because of a lower-leg injury.
3. AGENT C-RO
There were bright spots amid the doom and gloom. If Berryhill has been Arizona’s best offensive player, cornerback Christian Roland-Wallace has been his equal on defense. Roland-Wallace displayed an all-around game against NAU. He tackled with authority in space. He supported against the run. He intercepted a pass and brought it out of the end zone for 36 yards. One play stood out above the rest, though. NAU ran a bubble screen to the left side in the third quarter. While fighting off a block by Hendrix Johnson, Roland-Wallace used his free arm to drag down receiver Coleman Owen for a 3-yard loss. Roland-Wallace has looked like a pro from the minute he stepped on campus, and he conceivably could pursue that option after this season. But as well as he played, even Roland-Wallace wasn’t immune from the self-destructiveness that has undermined the Wildcats this season. He got into a shoving match with Johnson in the fourth quarter, leading to an unsportsmanlike-conduct foul that gave the Lumberjacks an extra 10 yards. Two plays later, they scored to make it 21-13.
4. THIS TIME IT’S PERSONNEL
Each week we provide some notes on individual players, so here goes … McCloud seems to have a good feel for the game. He doesn’t have a powerful arm, so the game plan would have to be altered accordingly if he were to start. ... Anderson continues to prove difficult to tackle, and he got in the way just enough in blitz pickup. ... RB Jalen John ran with excellent patience and has good change-of-direction skills for a big back (5-11, 221). ... Known more as a possession receiver, Boobie Curry showed breakaway speed on his 49-yard TD catch from Plummer. Curry also can be an asset in the run game at 6-2, 211. ... Arizona tackled a lot better vs. NAU, but two misses were costly. Both were on drive-extending running plays in the fourth quarter. Jalen Harris and JB Brown collided in the hole on third-and-9, enabling Kevin Daniels to slip away for a first down. On the last possession, on second-and-5, Harris again read the play well, came down the line and got a piece of Daniels. But neither he nor Paris Shand could wrap up the running back, who gained a first down to put the game away. ... Upon further review, we didn’t think DE Mo Diallo should have been ejected for targeting. The targeting foul on safety Jaxen Turner was legit, and it was a shame, because Turner easily was having his best game of the season.
5. FAR, FAR AWAY
Last week we posited that the loss to San Diego State showed just how far Arizona was from being competitive. The Wildcats might be even further away than we thought. The most worrisome aspect was that Arizona couldn’t control the line of scrimmage on offense. If they couldn’t push the pile against the Lumberjacks, how can we expect the Wildcats to run the ball or protect the quarterback against Oregon or any number of other Pac-12 opponents? Coming into the season, offensive line and quarterback were the Cats’ two biggest concerns. Three weeks into it, that hasn’t changed. Until it does, it’s going to be hard for Arizona to move the ball. And the UA’s 15-game losing streak – which has produced a stench the Wildcats can’t seem to wash off – will continue. Arizona’s last win came against Colorado in October 2019. The Buffaloes, who lost 30-0 at home to Minnesota on Saturday, might represent the best and only hope when the Wildcats visit Oct. 16. But as of today, even that feels like a longshot.