TUCSON,AZ— In the Arizona locker room following the teams 27-10 victory over UCLA, the overwhelming sense exuded by coaches and players alike was a sense of arrival.
The team now “expects” to win every game according to sophmore running back Jonah Coleman. Coleman was a key part of the team's win, as he led the way rushing with 77 yards on 17 carries. Head Coach Jedd Fisch echoed Coleman’s sentiment post game, “Our team believes we’re going to win every game that we play” said Fisch. Fisch said he looks at the USC game as a “turning point” in the season, where the mindset shifted to “we belong”.
Arizona entered the Los Angeles Coliseum in early October as a 22 point underdog, and surprised the entire country when they led the USC Trojans 17-0 at halftime. Arizona eventually lost that game in triple OT, but Fisch felt that was the game where everything changed for Arizona. It is hard to dispute Fisch’s claim. Since that loss, Arizona is on a three game winning streak with each win coming against a ranked opponent at the time. Never in the history of the University of Arizona’s football program have they won three consecutive games against ranked teams, making Saturday night's win historic. Arizona has also won those three games by a margin of 58 points, outscoring their (ranked) opponents 98-40. To say the least Arizona is compiling an impressive resume ahead of bowl season. A season they are guaranteed following their sixth victory Saturday night.
“We’re Bowling!” is how Fisch began his postgame presser late Saturday night, but he went on to add the team is, “not content with where we are, we hope to be better next week in Boulder”. Regardless of the coach-speak, Fisch knows this team is performing at its highest level since he has been Head Coach. Fisch remarked, “As good of a game as I've been a part of here” and Fisch noted that's not the first time he has said that this season, but it speaks to how the team continues to improve week in and week out.
Arizona and UCLA each came into the game 3-2 in the PAC-12, each team looking to make a vault up the conference standings one last time. Following an opening three and out by the Bruins, Noah Fifita and the Arizona offense took the field for the first time. After two chunk plays, an 18 yard connection from Fifita to Cowing, and a 12 yard Coleman run, Arizona had quickly reached FG range and found themselves on the UCLA 29 yard line. The opening drive was concluded by an uncharacteristic coverage misread from Fifita, and a turnover. Fifita’s pass was intended for senior tight end Tanner McLachlan, but he was draped in coverage. Bruin defensive back Alex Johnson reeled in his fourth interception of the season and for a moment it looked like he had a path to the endzone. However, McLachlan made a game changing chasedown tackle in what was a display of impressive effort and grit. McLachlan's tackle was the exact kind of play that occurs within winning programs. These kinds of plays don’t show up on the stat sheet, but without question alter the games completely. The score easily could have been 7-0 UCLA, but instead the Bruins offense led by newly appointed starter Ethan Garbers took over at the Arizona 39 yard line.
Garbers and the Bruins seemed poised to take an early lead in Arizona stadium and quiet the electrified homecoming crowd. Nine plays later, the Arizona defense stood tall and held UCLA to a 42 yard field goal attempt. Junior kicker Blake Glessner trotted out with hopes of putting the Bruins ahead early. Those hopes were all for not, as Arizona generated enough pressure to alter the kick and Glessner pulled the kick wide left. Once again, the importance of McLachlan’s tackle following Fifita’s interception can not be overlooked. His efforts were essentially worth seven points and the 45,000 fans in attendance at Arizona Stadium were fully engaged from this point forward.
Following the miss, Fifita and the Wildcat offense went soaring right down the field, marching 76 yards in just over 5 minutes of game clock. The drive was beautifully executed and featured a tremendous balance between the rushing and aerial attack. It was capped by a 9 yard touchdown pass to Montana Lemonious-Craig from Noah Fifita.
The Wildcats jumped in front early and never looked back. Arizona once again got contributions from several different aspects of the team in this win. Fifita passed for exactly 300 yards, spreading the rock to 8 different pass catchers.
None more impressive than sophomore receiver Tetairoa McMillian. McMillian continues to be Fifita’s favorite target during key plays. On Arizona’s first touchdown drive, Fifita connected with McMillian twice. Once on 3rd and 8 for 21 yards and again on 3rd and 10 for a 15 yard gain. The highlight of the night however came in the red zone when Fifita found McMillian in the corner of the endzone for Arizona’s final touchdown. McMillian’s only separation was created by his height (He stands 6 '5) as Bruin defensive back John Humphrey had tight coverage on him. Fifita fit the pass in the perfect place and McMillian acrobatically got his left toe down and secured the ball firmly, impressively completing the process of the catch. This dagger came with 14:37 remaining in the fourth quarter and with the control Arizona had defensively over UCLA and their quarterback Ethan Garbers, 14 points would prove to be insurmountable.
(Honorary Captain& 4x SB Champion Rob Gronkowski engages with fans in Arizona Stadium-Locke Curfman)
UCLA Head Coach Chip Kelly made the decision to start junior quarterback Ethan
Garbers, following the teams 36-24 loss to Oregon State, a game where then Bruin
quarterback Dante Moore threw 3 interceptions. Fortunately for Garbers, he was the beneficiary of a soft landing. UCLA played Stanford and Colorado, who are a combined 3-10 in the PAC-12. Naturally, Garbers played well and the team won both games rather convincingly. However, the soft landing ended Saturday night in Tucson, Arizona for Garbers. He struggled in this game, completing 13/21 passes for only 143 yards, and eventually had to exit the game due to an injury he sustained in the fourth quarter. The UCLA offense fell short of 300 total yards and in addition to that, scored only 1 touchdown in 5 in red zone trips. Conversely, Arizona scored 3 touchdowns in four trips to the red area and had roughly 150 more total yards of offense than the Bruins. It is not too difficult to see where the Wildcats won this game.
The elephant in the room for Arizona is the elusive top 25 rankings. It seems for weeks the Wildcats have been flirting with a top 25 spot, but have had the luck of a desperate nerve-filled bachelor. When asked if his team should be in the top 25, Jedd Fisch did not pull any punches. “Yes, I believe we have earned that right, " Fisch remarked. He pointed out their three ranked wins and the fact that Arizona’s entire margin of defeat this season is 16 points, with two of their losses being overtime games on the road. Arizona should have a lane to the top 25 with ranked teams USC, UCLA, Kansas State, and Air Force all losing. At this point the Wildcats should not expect to be ranked, but certainly deserve to be ranked. They currently are 23rd in the AP poll, but the official CFP committee will announce their rankings Tuesday night.
Next week Arizona heads to Prime Real Estate to take on the Colorado Buffaloes in Boulder. A game that likely will garner national attention thanks to the Deion effect and Arizona’s relevance. Arizona now only has three games remaining, @Colorado 11/11, Vs Utah 11/18 and of course the season finally @Arizona State on Thanksgiving weekend. Arizona will likely be favored in two of these games and possibly all three. If the Wildcats run the table they would reach 9+ wins for only the second time in the 21st Century. Historic times indeed.
(Arizona takes the field before their homecoming matchup against UCLA-Locke Curfman)