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 season-ending 38-15 loss to Arizona State on Saturday – as well as the 2021 campaign as a whole (and what’s coming next).
1. THE QB ROOM
Will Plummer made one killer mistake against ASU – a pick-six that he undoubtedly wanted to have back the instant the ball left his hand. Given the situation – first-and-10, 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter – it was a throw he simply didn’t need to attempt. Other than that, Plummer played by far the best game of his UA career. Plummer entered Saturday with a completion rate of 55.5%. He hit on a career-best 73.7% of his passes vs. the Sun Devils, and many of those – 11 of 28 completions – were thrown 10 or more yards down the field. UA coach Jedd Fisch said Plummer made a “leap” from Week 3 (NAU) to Week 12. It was obvious to anyone who watched Arizona play. Does Plummer’s progress make him the favorite to start in 2022? We’re not ready to go there yet. The offense was trending in the right direction under Jordan McCloud before he got hurt. The most likely scenario pits Plummer against McCloud. But it isn’t the only possibility. The Wildcats conceivably could add a veteran QB via the NCAA transfer portal; three high-profile Arizona products (Spencer Ratter, Jack Miller, Chubba Purdy) are already in there. Odds are, one of the current quarterbacks will transfer; that’s just the way the world works nowadays. Freshman Noah Fifita also is set to arrive in January. Does Fisch feel good enough about the guys he knows to eschew the big names who could upgrade the talent level in the QB room – but also might disrupt team chemistry?
2. NO MARGIN FOR ERROR
There’s no definitive correlation between penalties and winning percentage. Two teams have the fewest in the Pac-12 this season – 9-3 Utah and 4-8 Washington. The worst record among the four teams in the country that have more penalties than Arizona is 7-5. But when you’re Arizona, you’re in rebuilding mode and most of the teams in your conference have better talent and depth than you, well, you just can’t have that. Fisch summed it up perfectly: “At this point in time ... we don't have the margin for error to be highly penalized and also try to execute.” The ASU game perfectly encapsulated that. The Wildcats reached the 1-yard line on their second possession but false-started on third-and-goal. They ended up with a field goal. As Fisch would say, that’s a four-point play. In the third quarter, with the score 29-15, Arizona was deemed to have made an illegal fair-catch signal on a kickoff, putting the ball at the 3-yard line. We watched the play several times and never saw any Wildcat signal anything. Regardless, the call was made; the field position was poor; and after a sack and another penalty (delay of game while in punt formation), Arizona got called for holding in the end zone. Two more points for ASU. Many sighs on the UA sideline.
3. NEED FOR SPEED
One of the calls that wasn't made happened on Jayden Daniels’ 48-yard scramble for a touchdown on the opening drive of the second half. Blitzing Arizona linebacker Malik Reed got held, not once but twice. But that’s not the point here. What happened after that is more significant. Daniels raced through the UA defense like 2017 Khalil Tate. Daniels was the best athlete on the field on that play and anytime he was out there. The Wildcats need more explosive athletes. They need a lot of things. Most will point to the lines, which always should be a priority. But Arizona’s lack of speed was glaring this season. Even the Wildcats’ best offensive player, Stanley Berryhill III, averaged just 9.0 yards per catch and had only one touchdown. Help appears to be on the way, at least in the receiving corps. Freshman Dorian Singer showed great promise and ended up third on the team in receiving yards (301) despite playing only five games. Notably, he averaged a team-best 16.7 yards per reception. Fellow freshman Anthony Simpson also flashed potential. Fisch has mentioned several times that Ma’jon Wright, who had to sit out this season, dominated in scout-team settings. Jamarye Joiner, who had 61 yards on seven touches Saturday, should be healthier next season. On defense, more speed is needed at linebacker and safety. Whether those upgrades come from within or via recruiting remains to be seen.
4. THIS TIME IT’S PERSONNEL
Each week we provide some notes on individual players, so here goes … Every UA running back had his moments this season. Drake Anderson was the best of the bunch vs. ASU. Can the Wildcats continue to work in four guys? That rotation probably needs to be tightened. ... We’re not sure why Boobie Curry played sparingly and didn’t see many targets for a four-week stretch (Washington-Utah). He rebounded late and can be an asset. But we wonder if not being featured could lead him to look elsewhere. ... Donovan Laie, who started at left guard and played left tackle in the second half, didn’t looked quite right for most of the season. He had leg injuries early and a concussion late. We doubt he was ever 100%. ... DT Trevon Mason had two of his best games – and two of his worst – over the final four weeks. He’s less effective when he doesn’t play with good pad level. To make it in the NFL, he’s going to have to prove he can do it consistently. He has the size (6-6, 305) and talent to make it. ... Reed hustled to the ball and played with a fiery spirit in his first start. He’s the favorite to start at “Will” linebacker next season (assuming that position still exists under the new defensive coordinator). ... Not only did Tyler Loop go 12 for 12 on field goals this season, his kicks were struck well; all three vs. ASU were pure. The second-year freshman looks like a future All-Pac-12 player.
5. REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS
After they defeated Cal and battled Utah deep into the fourth quarter, we thought the Wildcats would win (at least) one of the final two games. That obviously didn’t happen, for a variety of reasons. Fisch now enters what might be the most critical offseason of his tenure. It’s still early enough that he can sell hope and opportunity to recruits and transfers. But he and his staff need to nail this recruiting cycle to produce better results in 2022, because hope and opportunity have only so much staying power. We get that process supersedes results, and progress can’t always be detected on the scoreboard. But at some point the results have to come – hopefully sooner than later – or the prized recruits won’t. Although Fisch said the transfer portal is “so hit or miss” and that he prefers to “build through the draft” (i.e., high school recruiting), we expect Arizona to again supplement its recruiting class with several transfers who can have an immediate impact. An infusion of talent is needed with a daunting ’22 schedule on the horizon. The preseason slate features zero gimmes (at San Diego State, vs. Mississippi State, vs. North Dakota State). In conference, Arizona visits Cal, UCLA, Utah and Washington. The home schedule includes USC, which will be revitalized under Lincoln Riley, and Oregon. We expect the Wildcats to be better next season. How much better? TBD.