The Arizona Wildcats, 6-3, are likely seeing blood in the water with the 4-5 Colorado Buffaloes, who are 1-5 in conference play. Arizona is ranked at #21 and they have found lightning at quarterback with Noah Fifita. Brian Pedersen of AZ Desert Swarm answers my questions to catch up with who Arizona really is.
1. NOAH FIFITA. This guy is electric. What makes him run the offense so well?
While Jayden de Laura was brought in for his experience as a starting quarterback, Noah Fifita was the first quarterback Jedd Fisch and his staff recruited to the program. And they did so specifically because of how well they thought he’d fit into the pro style system.
It also helps that he came from a very successful HS program, Servite in Anaheim, where three of his teammates (including receiver Tetairoa McMillan) also played. He and McMillan are best friends and have played together since eighth grade and just have a great connection.
But there’s also just a level of calmness and patience around this kid, who never looks rattled. While de Laura often would give off an ‘oh shit!’ vibe on certain plays, Fifita acts like this is NCAA Football 2014.
2. Jedd Fisch as a hire was a kind of unknown, but it seems like he and Tucson have taken to each other. What has he done to find success where others could not?
No one else in the country probably would have given Fisch his first shot to be a head coach, which tells you how down Arizona’s program was at the time. Turns out that gamble was a profitable one to this point, and a lot of that has to do with how good of a salesman he’s been.
The 2022 recruiting class was the best in school history, and most of those guys are either starting or getting significant playing time as redshirt freshmen or sophomores. There have been more alumni coming back for games, as well as practices and other functions, than under the previous two coaching staffs combined, and there’s just a much better overall engagement with the community.
Fisch also leans heavily on his connections, specifically in the NFL, for both guidance and inspiration. He rarely goes a presser without mentioning something or someone from the pros, whether it be past or present, which in a way is necessary because Arizona itself has produced only a handful of NFL players the past decade but will have several get drafted next year.
3. What has Arizona done this year to find more sustained defensive success?
Johnny Nansen was brought in from UCLA to run the scheme last year, and the overall results were terrible. But that’s because the roster on that side of the ball wasn’t built for it, like the offense had been between Fisch’s first and second seasons. Now, with a combination of transfers (eight have played 100 or more snaps) and those 2022 recruits being more developed, the results are so much better.
Nansen is also willing to go away from his 4-2-5 base when needed, using seven defensive backs regularly against Michael Penix Jr. and Caleb Williams and other special packages to deal with mobile passers or run-heavy teams. And he subs liberally, with no one on the defensive line playing more than 60 percent of the time, which keeps everyone fresh in the fourth quarter.
4. Who is the player to watch on offense? Defense?
Sophomore Jonah Coleman has become the primary ball carrier since senior Michael Wiley went down with an ankle injury. Wiley is back, but Coleman’s physicality—almost 80 percent of his yardage is after contact—is so valuable to staying balanced.
On defense, let’s go with famed former Buff Taylor Upshaw. No idea what changed for Colorado between getting him from Michigan in the winter and letting him go after the spring, but he’s been a revelation for Arizona. He leads the team with 7.5 sacks and 25 pressures and has been by far the most disruptive force up front.
5. This is CU’s last home game of the year. How do you see it playing out?
This could easily be a letdown game for Arizona, as it just got bowl eligible and is coming off a string of five straight ranked opponents with three wins in a row. Utah is in Tucson next week for the home finale, and some overlooking/overconfidence could factor in, especially early. But unless Colorado suddenly figured out how to protect the quarterback and get stops on defense, Arizona should pull away down the stretch.