TUCSON – Spirits remain high in Tucson and the rebuild continues for University of Arizona’s football team despite falling in its home opener to Mississippi State after an impressive road victory at San Diego State in Week 1.
Arizona coach Jedd Fisch has preached that this season is the start of a build-up of his program, as they look to completely revamp after only posting one win over the last two seasons.
“As we continue on this build, we’re gonna go through some ebbs and flows,” Fisch said after Saturday’s loss. “We have a lot of young (players), we have a lot of new (players), and we’re continuing to try to improve every single day, which we will.”
The Wildcats had the 22nd-ranked recruiting class in the country this offseason, according to 247 Sports, which ranked third in the Pac-12 behind only USC and Oregon. In total, Arizona welcomed 50 newcomers this season.
Transfer quarterback Jayden de Laura, who won the 2021 Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year award with Washington State, and wide receiver Jacob Cowing, who had 1,354 receiving yards and seven touchdowns in 2021 at UTEP, shined in the Wildcats’ season opener in San Diego.
De Laura had 299 passing yards and four touchdowns—three of which went to Cowing, who also tacked on 152 receiving yards. His other passing touchdown went to the Wildcats’ highest ranked recruit of 2022, wide receiver Tetairoa McMillan, who was graded as a five-star by some recruiting sites.
Against Mississippi State, Cowing once again reeled in a touchdown from de Laura and McMillan led the team in receiving yards (69), but the game was an overall struggle for de Laura, as he went 23-for-45 with 220 yards and three interceptions.
“I think he probably had some ups and downs,” Fisch said of de Laura. “There were some good plays that he made … but there were just too many critical errors that we need to improve upon, and I can help him out better.”
One question mark coming into the first home game that ended up standing out to Fisch and his players was the fan turnout at Arizona Stadium.
“Our second section was incredible tonight,” Fisch said. “You know, people have told me about people leaving early at halftime, but it was packed … It was packed really all the way through, we made a couple shoot stops on third and fourth down because of the students section. They were awesome … And as we’re building our program, we need them to keep up, keep fighting with us, and keep building with us.”
The official attendance for the game was 46, 275, which was higher than any game last season. Running back Michael Wiley, who had a 34-yard rushing touchdown on the opening drive of the game, pointed to Saturday’s fan turnout as “a major key in winning football.”
“Just with success in general, having a crowd like that brings the juice and gets everybody going even when you’re sometimes not motivated,” Wiley said.
Even though the Wildcats allowed 39 points to the Bulldogs, Fisch was very impressed with his team’s defense against Mississippi State’s tricky air-raid offense, as they forced three turnovers and had a couple of sacks that both came on third downs. Because of his defense, he said they were never really out of the game and wants them to keep up the effort moving forward.
“We’re not going to give up,” said defensive end Jalen Harris, who had six tackles and a half sack. “We’re gonna keep battling and we’re gonna come out of every series and battle.”
Something new the defense is doing this season to bring even more energy to the team is having a “turnover sword” on the sideline, where they hold up a sword with a deflated football in front of the fans after a turnover.
“It makes you want to go and get a turnover so you could hold that sword,” Harris said. “We go to the sideline and get to hold that thing up in front of their student section and have your teammates around you, so that’s very fun.”
With Mississippi State being Arizona’s first game against an SEC opponent since 2006 coupled with a road appearance last week against San Diego State, which had 12 wins last season, the Wildcats’ 2022 season started with a bang, and they are not hanging their heads after the loss.
“I think our locker room was very encouraging,” Wiley said. “It was guys reiterating, ‘We’ve got 10 more games, and I think we don’t need to dwell on this loss, all we got do is just play week by week,’ so we’re going to look at the film, see what we need to get corrected but we are going to move onto North Dakota State.”
The last game before Pac-12 play against North Dakota State Saturday will offer yet another test for Arizona as the Bison have beaten six straight FBS opponents dating back to 2010.