What to watch for when Arizona Wildcats football hosts UTEP

Brian J. Pedersen
9 Min Read

When the 2023 schedule came out, Arizona going 2-1 during nonconference play seemed like the most plausible scenario. That’s still in play as the Wildcats get set to host UTEP on Saturday night in their final tune-up before Pac-12 play.

“I talk to you guys about four quarters of the season,” UA coach Jedd Fisch said Thursday. “This is the end of the first quarter, and we got to win every quarter. You want to go 8-4, you got to win every quarter.”

Arizona went 2-1 in non-league play last season, finishing that portion of the schedule off with a 31-28 win over FCS powerhouse North Dakota State, but then went 1-2, 0-3 and 2-1 in the remaining quarters.

Here’s what to look for when the Wildcats (1-1) and Miners (1-2) battle at Arizona Stadium:

Last chance to clean things up

While every game on the schedule counts the same, the ones that really matter for Arizona begin next week with the Pac-12 opener at Stanford. That means Saturday night is the last “tune up,” meaning the last opportunity to tinker and tweak before committing to an approach for the rest of the season.

Don’t look for Arizona to make any scheme changes, though. In its case it’s just a matter of being fundamentally sound.

“It’s going to take us playing our best that we played all year, four quarters of great football,” Fisch said. “Our goal this week is to take care of the ball. We’re looking to have a clean game, disciplined. We need to do simple better. We need to do simple better and find a way to put ourselves in position to compete.”

Arizona has turned it over seven times in two games, with quarterback Jayden de Laura responsible for six of those giveaways. The Wildcats have scored on nine of 15 drives that didn’t end with turnovers, essentially making themselves the biggest obstacle to overcome when on offense.

UTEP has one takeaway in three games, an interception in its win over FCS Incarnate Word. The Wildcats have only had five games without a turnover since the start of Fisch’s tenure in 2021, going 3-2 in those contests.

Fueled by frustration

Despite five turnovers at Mississippi State, including on the first four possession, Arizona took an SEC team to overtime on the road and had a chance to win it in regulation. In 2021 or 2022 that would mean a lot more to Fisch, but not this year.

“With this game coming off of, the type of loss that we had, we’re not settling for moral victories,” he said. “This isn’t Year Zero any longer, where we were trying to compete for four quarters and see if we can stay healthy for four quarters. We went into Starkville expecting to win, we’re disappointed we do, and now it’s our responsibility this week to to channel those frustrations and then see how good we can be.”

The point spread—18, according to DraftKings Sportsbook—indicates Arizona is expected to win easily. But a 3-score victory might not be sufficient because it would either mean the offense shot itself in the foot again or the defense couldn’t replicate the performances it put up in the first two games.

In other words: if the Wildcats have a chance to run up the score, they will.

A physical defensive assignment

As big and strong as Mississippi State’s offensive line was, the rest of the Bulldogs’ attack wasn’t that sizable. That’s not the case with UTEP, which operates out of a two-back set that includes a fullback, and four of the five players in that rotation are 225 pounds and above.

Throw in a pair of big tight ends and the Miners’ offense will be reminiscent of what the UA faced against North Dakota State last year.

“Those guys are big boys to tackle,” Fisch said. “Those guys are going to bring a challenge to our linebacker corps. I think that tackling is going to be at a premium this week.”

Jacob Manu and Justin Flowe, who could see his first start on Saturday, each had 12 tackles against MSU. But as a team the Wildcats were tagged with 16 missed tackles.

Cowing’s reunion

At this time two years ago, Jacob Cowing was in the middle of a stretch of three straight 100-yard receiving games for UTEP. He would finish with eight of those performances, catching 69 passing for 1,367 yards and seven touchdowns in helping the Miners reach a bowl game.

When Cowing entered the NCAA transfer portal just before Christmas, Arizona was one of dozens of programs to reach out in hopes of landing one of the top offensive targets on the market. The Wildcats won, with Fisch saying Thursday his program was certainly aided by Cowing’s desire to be close to his young son living in Maricopa.

Cowing was one of nine transfers the UA added that offseason, with de Laura the only one that’s had more of an impact. And he’s been as good as advertised, Fisch said.

“Really there’s been no surprises with Jacob Cowing,” he said. “From what from what we saw on film, to what we’ve seen in person, Jacob Cowing has been the consistent soon-to-be pro.”

Cowing is the active leader in receiving yards, with 3,698, which ranks 41st in FBS history, and his 236 receptions are tied for fourth-most among active players.

A patient passing attack

Cowing so far this season has 10 catches for 69 yards and two TDs, ranking third, fourth and tied for second, respectively, on the team. Tetairoa McMillan also has two scores, and leads the Wildcats with 226 yards, but running back Michael Wiley has the most receptions (14) and Jonah Coleman has more receiving yards than both Cowing and Montana Lemonious-Craig.

That’s what the opposing defenses have enabled, Fisch said. And taking what’s given early is important to be able to do what you want with the ball later.

“The Eagles’ first 19 passes of their game against the Patriots, they threw to a wide receiver once,” Fisch said. “You just have to understand, let the game come to you. If you let the game come to you and play with patience, you’ll have no problem completing passes to wide receivers at the appropriate time. But in this case, our running backs are really good at catching.”

So far, backfield players have accounted for just shy of 25 percent of Arizona’s catches. Last year it was 17.7 percent.

Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.

Brian J. Pedersen www.azdesertswarm.com

2023-09-15 19:00:00 , Arizona Desert Swarm – All Posts

Share this Article
Leave a comment