LAS VEGAS – In a town known for hastily put-together marriages, the Arizona Wildcats and head coach Jedd Fisch concluded their eight-month engagement by making it official Saturday night in Las Vegas, opening the season against BYU.
Fisch had done just about everything right in the time leading up to his first game as head coach. He rallied a skeptical fan base, supported other sports in Arizona Athletics and convinced the majority of a roster that was sprinting for the transfer portal to stay in Tucson.
But it wasn’t full-blown nuptials until this program played somebody else under Fisch. The first-time head coach would have a notch in the win-loss column by Sunday, for better or for worse.
And there were plenty of wrinkles that made it more than any ole season opener.
The ‘Cats were planning on rotating Gunner Cruz and Will Plummer under center as the offense continued to take shape. A win in Vegas would snap a 12-game losing streak that started on October 12, 2019. The team would be playing its first “home” game in front of a crowd that was 80% in support of the Cougars.
When it was all said and done, the Cougars were too much for the ‘Cats, winning this one 24-16. But the Wildcats showed the same buy-in that occurred in the offseason. They were down plenty of times in the first half, but certainly not out.
Up until two minutes remaining in the second quarter, the offensive had only scored one more point (three) than the defense had (two). There were two missed field goals that could have brought the game closer, but Arizona did not stop fighting until the clock hit zero.
While there was plenty of speculation on how the snaps would be split between Gunner Cruz and Will Plummer, Cruz, the Casteel High School alum and Washington State transfer, received all but eight snaps the entire game.
The offense didn’t take many shots down field, but Cruz took care of the football, throwing only one interception late in the game. The biggest area of critique for Cruz came from hanging onto the ball too long at times. He was sacked four times, and Fisch said only one of those was probably on the offensive line.
But he completed 34 of 45 passes for 336 yards with a touchdown and interception each. Five receivers had at least four catches on the night.
Throw from Gunner Cruz to BJ Casteel for the first touchdown of the season. #AZvsBYU #ItsPersonal
— Arizona Football (@ArizonaFBall) September 5, 2021
Taking sacks is something that can be ironed out over the Wildcats’ next two games before conference play.
Under defensive coordinator Don Brown – Dr. Blitz – the Wildcat defense showed flashes as well. In the first half, the defense played bend but don’t break defense, and aside from a 67-yard touchdown from Jaren Hall to Neil Pau’u, Arizona limited the big play for the Cougars.
That side of the ball caused the real spark in Arizona’s comeback, forcing a safety that was followed by a touchdown pass from Cruz to BJ Casteel.
Arizona pins BYU back on the 1-yard line following a punt & then Trevon Mason busts through the OL for a safety! ✌️
BYU – 21
Arizona – 5
🏈 @ArizonaFBall vs @BYUfootball
#LVBowl | #OnlyVegas pic.twitter.com/icAArPIl57
— Good Sam Vegas Kickoff Classic (@LasVegasBowl) September 5, 2021
It was far from a perfect game, but even one game in, the culture swing in Tucson is evident.
Many in the Pac-12 knew this rebuild will last longer than an offseason. Fan buzz won’t guarantee results on the field.
But remember the last game this team played before Saturday resulted in a 63-point beat down from a their hated rival. It took one play to know that game was over that night.
The gap between that game and Saturday feels a lot longer than nine months, and it’s safe to say the fan base will gladly take what they saw in Las Vegas as a starting point for a new era.