(Cornerback Jai-Ayviauynn Celestine prepares for a key defensive play- Locke Curfman KAMP)
TUCSON,AZ—“It was a game that was pretty much equal” Arizona Head Coach Jedd Fisch said following the showdown with Oregon State. It was a game that was exactly equal…with one exception.
With three seconds left in the first half the game was all square at 10 a piece. Oregon State had the ball on the Arizona 16 yard line, and had the field goal unit out to attempt a 34 yard field goal, seemingly to take a three point lead into the half. Except, ORSU Head Coach Jonathan Smith had other plans. In a play call that at best could be described as unpredictable, and at worst a full scale calamity, Smith instructed place kicker Atticus Sappington to tuck the ball and run from the twenty four yard line with intentions of breaking the plane of the goal line. In a shock only to Smith, the Arizona defense was able to chase down Sappington (who would've thought placekicker Atticus Sappington would be the center of attention in a nationally televised affair). Essentially Oregon State refused a certain three points. Earlier in the game Sappington effortlessly nailed a 35 yard field goal and it seemed he would have no issue from 34 yards. Simply put, it was the wrong call at the wrong time. Certainly these three points wouldn’t loom too large in this game, right? Well…when the clock struck all zeros after the fourth quarter, it read Arizona 27, ORSU 24. The field goal Smith turned down was worth three points. Close games come down to miscues and key coaching decisions, and in the case of last night at Arizona stadium, a puzzling fake field goal.
What did Fisch have to say about Smith’s decision, “I think everybody has their own reasoning, I don’t look at other peoples calls.” He went on to add, “If Noah’s punt hadn’t worked out people would be questioning why I didn’t have Kyle kick it, but I have my own reasons and I’m sure he did too.” The only difference in Fisch’s examples? His pooch punt call with 11:59 left in the fourth quarter was the right call at the right time. In the immediate aftermath of Fifita’s pooch punt which came at a time when Arizona was trailing 17-13, Arizona began playing complementary football.
Oregon State took over on their own 5 yard line, after a drive that lasted 5 plays and 13 yards, Arizona’s defense came up with a key stop. Forcing Beaver punter Kyle Green onto the field for the third time, and the third time was the charm for Jacob Cowing. Cowing fielded the 42 yard punt at his own 40 yard line and made multiple Beavers miss before being corralled down 20 yards later on the opposite side's 40. Fisch described Cowing’s return as ”huge” and said punt returns had been a point of “emphasis” all week long. Fisch continued by applauding the teams complementary play during this sequence and said, “we strive to be a full team, the championship teams I've been a part of have won games by being full teams, when all three phases work together.”
Two plays later, Noah Fifita hit the newly returned to the lineup, Michael Wiley for a 40 yard touchdown pass. Wiley avoided multiple defenders and tiptoed the sideline in dramatic fashion. On the return of Wiley, Fisch said, “It’s good to have Mike Wiley back” and Wiley’s Quarterback Noah Fifita added, “He (Wiley) brings a veteran presence and a swagger to the team that we need, he’s a very special player and person.” Wiley, who missed the past three games due to an injury he suffered in Stanford in Week 4, was on the field with Fifita for the first time, and the two gelled together, quite nicely. Following WIley’s explosive touchdown, Oregon State went without a first down on the ensuing drive and immediately punted it back to Cowing who broke off another 16 yard punt return, a detail Fisch circled back on postgame. “We try to get one first down every return, we figure if we get ten years that's like stealing a first down.”If getting ten yards on a punt return is like stealing a first down then Jacob Cowing is the Willie Sutton of special teams. Cowing stole the equivalent of three and a half first downs in two consecutive punts. Sutton famously said he robbed banks, “because that's where the money is,” and when it comes to football, sometimes there's value in special teams.
Picking up on their own 45 yard line, the Fifita led Wildcat offense went on to display the importance of depth in the running back room. Arizona began by featuring the strong 6 '0 225 lb back DJ Williams (third on the depth chart) on the teams first three carries. Williams took those three carries 25 yards, down to the Beaver 30 yard line where back Jonah Coleman would take over. Eventually, the aforementioned running back, Michael Wiley would seal the drive with his second touchdown reception of the night. The drive featured prolific appearances from each of the teams three main running backs, but was held together by the red-shirted freshmans “poise and composure” as Fisch described him. Before throwing a touchdown pass to WIley, Fifita hit Jacob Cowing for a timely 9 yard completion and on the ensuing 3rd down and one kept it himself for a gritty three yard gain.
The job was not completely finished despite ESPN analytics saying Arizona had a 98.8% chance of victory.
Oregon State took over down 27-17, with 2:22 remaining. Their path to OT consisted of three pillars. A quick TD, recovered onside kick, and a made FG. Possible (look no further than last year's Cleveland Browns collapse vs the New York Jets), but highly improbable. Be that as it may, the Beavers went on a 75 yard touchdown drive taking only 4 plays to do it and 44 seconds off the clock. Part one of their plan was complete. Now the hard part…the onside kick.
Once again, the man in the spotlight was Oregon State kicker Atticus Sappington (with a name like that, he deserves the hot lights). Sappington sent a slowly rolling spinning onside kick in the direction of the Arizona sideline. The Wildcats were certain it wouldn’t travel the 10 yards a kickoff is mandated to go, until it did! The ensuing pile was as chaotic to say the least. The wildcats were late to the party, but made it before the lights were completely turned off and swiped the ball out of bounds. Fisch said,” The onside kick was a weird one, we needed to be more aggressive there…almost became a scary play right in front of your face…it was a good kick.” Fisch was spared the pre-halloween fright, but took a teachable moment from the play. Fisch says next time his team will jump on the ball when only they can, after 7 or 8 yards.
The WIldcats would go on to put the finishing touches on a 27-24 victory, delivering a devastating loss to Oregon State, essentially killing their chances of winning the PAC-12 in its final season as currently constructed. As for Arizona, they are now tied with Oregon State, UCLA, and defending conference champions Utah in the PAC-12 with a 3-2 conference record. Their final two home games will be against UCLA and Utah. Both of which should be intriguing matchups. The next one on the slate is UCLA, 7:30 MST on FS1 in Arizona Stadium. Jedd Fisch says he is already “excited for next Saturday” and that excitement is “the great part of this game.”
It is much easier to be excited for your next game when you have solid Quarterback play. Noah Fifita did a “fantastic job” according to Fisch and made some “big time plays.” Fisch added that Fifita, “did a nice job managing the game.” Fifita completed 25 of his 32 attempted passes (78%) for 275 yards in the air, 3 TD to 1 INT. When asked what the last three weeks have meant to him? Fifita said, “ It’s been a blessing…I don’t take it lightly…having people trust me, with all of their confidence and belief is the best part. Wins are great, but having a relationship in the locker room and with the guys is the best part.”
Arizona has now compiled two signature wins in back to back games. The ball appears to be bouncing their way and they’ve caught some breaks (albeit some were induced by the opposing coach). Arizona has overcome their devastating 43-41 3OT loss at USC with statement wins against Washington State and Oregon State. The schedule hardly softens next week against no.19 UCLA, but UCLA has to play them too, and if they are not careful UCLA could be the third ranked opponent to fall to Arizona.
(Noah Fifita surveys his teams defense during the 4th Quarter from the sideline- Locke Curfman KAMP)