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5 takeaways from the Arizona Wildcats’ 49-31 loss to the Cal Golden Bears

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Cal running back DeCarlos Brooks runs against Arizona during Saturday’s first half.

Every week throughout the season, we take a look back at the Arizona Wildcats’ previous game after re-watching it via the TV broadcast. Here are five key takeaways from the UA’s 49-31 loss at Cal on Saturday:

1. INDEFENSIBLE

Arizona had so many issues on run defense, it’s hard to know where to begin. During our review, we saw players overrunning plays, failing to contain the edge, losing gap integrity, missing tackles and not playing to the whistle. For simplicity’s sake, let’s focus on Jaydn Ott’s two 70-plus-yard touchdowns. The first was a shotgun run to the left. Cal had two tight ends to that side. Christian Young and Christian Roland-Wallace ended up with outside leverage after the snap – seemingly to funnel the run inside. Kolbe Cage got picked off by a blocker in the hole. Jerry Roberts and Jaxen Turner didn’t have good enough angles to get to Ott as he raced down the left sideline. The second play also went to the offense’s left. The Golden Bears had three tight ends bunched near the tackle. Ott took a pitch to the left. Young and Roberts overran the play – Roberts by a considerable amount. Jalen Harris was the only defender who had a chance as Ott burst upfield. The freshman tailback broke through Harris’ desperate tackle attempt. Our theory about all of the above: The defensive staff’s reluctance to rotate players, especially up front, in previous games – in particular the phonebooth fight the previous week against North Dakota State – caught up with the Wildcats in Berkeley. They were a step slow for much of the afternoon.

2. WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN

The final score made it seem like a blowout. Cal led by double digits from the 4:59 mark of the third quarter until the final gun. But Arizona was a near-miss here and a near-miss there from making it a different game. Jacob Cowing and Dorian Singer came within inches of downing Jayden de Laura’s first-quarter pooch punt at the 1-yard line. Four plays later, Roberts came within inches of making an unreal interception on a ball that Harris tipped. If that play hadn’t been overturned, the Wildcats would have had possession on the edge of the red zone with a 14-7 lead. If they had gone up two scores, Cal might have gone away from Ott. Late in the first half, de Laura overshot an open Cowing on a corner route in the end zone. Arizona ended up settling for a field goal. Hunter Echols got his hands on QB Jack Plummer on second-and-11 from the UA 13 in the third quarter but couldn’t sack him. Cal ended up scoring a touchdown. Finally, Singer nearly made a bobbling, contested catch in the back of the end zone on second-and-16 later in the period. It was close enough for a review, which might be why the Wildcats got flagged for delay of game. On the next play, Cal sacked and stripped de Laura. Instead of seven points – or at least three – Arizona came away with none.

3. CREATE-A-PLAY

It’s hard to be a play-caller and a head coach. Just ask Nathaniel Hackett. Fisch embraces those roles, and his creativity was on display against Cal. We’d like to spotlight four plays here. The first was Arizona’s first play from scrimmage. The Wildcats faked a jet sweep, faked a traditional handoff, then had de Laura roll to his left, where he found a leaking, wide-open Singer for a 17-yard gain. On Arizona’s second possession, Arizona again used jet motion to shift the defense. Tailback Michael Wiley then received a handoff from a wing position and gained 9 yards. On Arizona’s third possession, Fisch dialed up a fake bubble screen to Jonah Coleman out of an empty set. De Laura then hit Cowing on a seam route for 29 yards. What made that play doubly effective: de Laura threw the bubble to Wiley out of the same look the previous week. Lastly, on Arizona’s final drive of the first half, de Laura faked a bubble screen to Cowing on a play that looked a lot like the pass they pulled off on fourth down vs. NDSU. De Laura instead hit Singer on a slant for 13 yards to convert a third-and-10. Fisch might stop calling plays someday. He should never stop designing them.

4. THIS TIME IT’S PERSONNEL

Our notes on individual players can be found here … Tailbacks Wiley, Coleman and DJ Williams all had their moments. What we liked in particular: Wiley’s vision, Coleman’s toughness and Williams’ speed. The latter could be a sign that Williams, a late arrival, has caught up to the others in terms of conditioning. ... Lost in Ott’s heroics and Arizona’s failed comeback: an absolutely brilliant, contested, one-handed sideline catch by Singer. You won’t see one better. ... TE Tanner McLachlan is getting better and more confident every week. Arizona found a gem there. ... We thought this was the offensive line’s best overall performance, even including the San Diego State game. The line picked up blitzes very well. ... There weren’t many standouts on defense, but DT Kyon Barrs was the closest thing. Barrs was able to get backfield penetration a handful of times, disrupting run plays before they could get started. ... UA fans like to pick on CB Isaiah Rutherford. Pro Football Focus had him allowing only two catches on five targets. Granted, one was a touchdown. But that was an extremely difficult assignment covering Cal’s top wideout, Jeremiah Hunter, on a post route with no safety help.

5. SHORT TERM, LONG TERM

In terms of “the build,” as Fisch likes to call it, nothing happened in Berkeley that changes Arizona’s long-term outlook. The Wildcats weren’t quite ready to win a Pac-12 road game against a solid conference opponent. Coming into the season, this wasn’t a game anyone circled as a sure win – if there’s even such a thing for a team coming off a 1-11 season. In the short term, it raised some red flags. The defense is regressing, allowing more yards per play in each subsequent week. That unit doesn’t have as many difference makers as the offense now does. Nor does it have depth – or at least depth that the coaching staff trusts. All that being said, Arizona should defeat Colorado this week. The early lines have the Wildcats favored by double digits against the winless Buffaloes, who’ve been outscored by 126 points. The Arizona State game at the end of the season also looks very winnable right now, assuming Arizona can survive the gauntlet that precedes it. With one upset somewhere in between, the Wildcats would have five wins. Anyone would take that in Year 2 of “the build.”

Contact sports reporter Michael Lev at 573-4148 or mlev@tucson.com. On Twitter @michaeljlev 


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