Every football season has an inflection point, a game that in many ways tells you how a season will go.
This weekend’s matchup with Mississippi State is no such game.
Oh to be sure it is a big game, at least as big as a nonconference game without playoff implications can be. Going on the road and beating an SEC team would be a considerable achievement for the Wildcats, and if the Cats can pull off the upset it could lead to a Top 25 ranking and, if not that, an increased sense of optimism.
Because to go into Starkville and beat the Bulldogs would be a sign that the improvements we thought Arizona had made are real. Really, to go into this game and just compete, perhaps losing in close fashion, would offer a similar tale.
Think about last year when the teams first met. Mississippi State won 39-17 and it wasn’t even that close. Save for the the opening drive, which was capped by a 34-yard Michael Wiley touchdown to put Arizona up 7-0, it was barely competitive.
Jayden de Laura forced the issue and tossed three interceptions. Arizona’s running game, which would prove to be a strength, was held in check. The defense was, well, technically present but allowed 426 total yards, including completions on 40 of 49 pass attempts.
It was a disappointing result, especially as just a week earlier the Cats went into San Diego and took it to the Aztecs. But if you had looked at the teams in pregame warmups the final score probably wouldn’t have come as much of a shock. Even then it was obvious that Mississippi State was considerably larger at pretty much every position and you had to figure they’d have that SEC athleticism, too. It was a bad matchup for a still undersized Arizona.
That was then.
This is now, and Arizona set out in the offseason to get bigger and more athletic, especially on defense.
Some of that was on display last weekend against NAU, a game in which the Wildcats physically overmatched their opponent. It is what should have happened, of course, but it didn’t just two years prior. Now, being able to overwhelm the Lumberjacks is more of a relief than anything, but even still it was a sign that things may in fact be different.
Going toe-to-toe with the Bulldogs this weekend would be rock solid evidence that things are different, win or lose.
Of course, this game is certainly winnable. As of this writing the betting line has moved down to nine points. More than one score, yes, but a significantly smaller number than the difference in last year’s final score.
Given how much — or little — each roster has changed, that would indicate there is a decent amount of faith in Arizona’s improvement. Mississippi State has been very complimentary of the UA’s front seven.
“Up front those guys are a bunch of transfer guys that have done a really, really nice job,” State OC Kevin Barbay said via 247sports.com. They’re really bit, it will be a different unit this week than we faced last week.
“And I think their linebacker corps is really, really good. The new kid is a phenomenal player, one of their team captains. He’s really a hard nosed kid that runs well to the football and just plays the game like you should.”
The “new kid” Barbay was referring to is probably Jacob Manu, who is not new to Arizona this season but amassed zero stats in last year’s matchup. So he’s new to Mississippi State’s game planning.
Now, maybe some of what Barbay said is coachspeak, complimenting the opponent because it’s less likely to generate headlines than something like, “We can’t wait to face this defense because they’re not any good and we should be able to do whatever we want, whenever we want against them.”
Of course, Barbay was not with Mississippi State last season and he calls a different style of game than the late Mike Leach, so Arizona is going to face a different offense than what it saw last year, too. It’s part of what makes this matchup so intriguing, that the the sides of the ball where each team figures to be the most different are the groups that face off against each other.
If Arizona wins it will likely be due to its offense playing a clean game and making plays, but they’ll only have that opportunity if the defense holds up against a team that it couldn’t stop just one year ago. It’s possible.
However, it does not need to happen for Arizona to have a successful season. Moral victories don’t carry much weight, but the Cats showing they’re capable of hanging with a team like Mississippi State on the road would show this is very much a different team than what we saw last year, and that would mean we’re in for an enjoyable 2023.
Adam Green www.azdesertswarm.com
2023-09-08 23:00:00 , Arizona Desert Swarm – All Posts