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The good, the bad and the ugly of the Arizona Wildcats' first four games of Jedd Fisch era
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Arizona Football

The good, the bad and the ugly of the Arizona Wildcats' first four games of Jedd Fisch era

University of Arizona vs Northern Arizona

Arizona offensive lineman Jordan Morgan, left, celebrates with receiver Boobie Curry after his catch for a touchdown against NAU. The Wildcats went on to lose to the Lumberjacks 21-19.

Time’s up.

The bye week is officially over with and now the winless Arizona Wildcats won’t see another week off until season’s end.

Fortunately for the UA, after going toe-to-toe with then-No.3 Oregon in Eugene and only trailing by five points in the fourth quarter, the 41-19 loss to begin Pac-12 play didn’t appear as troubling as, say, falling to Northern Arizona for the first time since the Great Depression.

That being said, Jedd Fisch’s Wildcats have hurdles to clear if they want to snap a 16-game losing streak that dates back to (checks calendar) exactly two years this Tuesday.

Arizona returns to play at Arizona Stadium on Saturday night, when the Wildcats face Chip Kelly’s UCLA Bruins.

As Arizona hopes to “flush away” the four losses and turns to its eight conference games remaining on the schedule, we evaluate the good, the bad and the ugly of Fisch’s start at the UA.

The good: Current culture is building for future

Believe it or not, we live in a world where one of the top recruits nationally claimed committing to Arizona was a “no-brainer” for him.

Four-star Los Angeles-area tight end Keyan Burnett, the highest-rated tight end to commit to the UA since Rob Gronkowski in 2007, is the top-rated prospect in Arizona’s 2022 recruiting class. Speaking of “Gronk,” Fisch was able to get the NFL superstar to return to the UA for the first time in a decade as an honorary coach against Tedy Bruschi in what was the most promoted UA football spring game in recent memory, but we digress.

Burnett, an Anaheim native who’s also the son of “Desert Swarm” linebacker Chester Burnett, is one of many notable recruits joining the Wildcats next season. Burnett flipped his commitment from hometown USC to the UA, and joined his Servite High School teammate, quarterback Noah Fifita, for Arizona’s ’22 class.

Arizona quarterback signee Noah Fifita, was joined by Servite High School teammates Tetairoa McMillan, left, and Keyan Burnett, right, when he visited Tucson last summer.

“I feel like this opportunity doesn’t present itself often and just look at everything they’re doing with the coaching staff and the program with all the changes they’re making,” Burnett said on ESPN Tucson last week. “Obviously we’re off to a rough start, but change takes time. We’re being patient and just looking at the players they’re bringing in and the things they’re looking forward to doing, it’s just really promising.”

Fisch’s veteran coaching staff has so far assembled the fourth-best recruiting class in the Pac-12 and 35th-best nationally, according to 247Sports’ rankings. If those rankings stand at the end of the recruiting cycle, Arizona will have its highest-rated class since 2006. The Wildcats have had two other head coaches in that span, Rich Rodriguez and Kevin Sumlin.

For ’22, Arizona has a commitment from four-star L.A.-area linebacker Sterling Lane, who selected the Wildcats over LSU, Michigan, Oregon, Arkansas and Tennessee. Three-star NorCal cornerback Zeke Berry committed to the UA over Oregon, Michigan and UCLA. Three-star wide receiver A.J. Jones flipped his commitment from the Bruins to Arizona after visiting Tucson.

Excluding the transfer portal pickups, Arizona added just two players in ’21 with at least one other Power 5 offer. All but one of Arizona’s 2022 commits have other Power 5 offers, and it’s defensive lineman Jermaine Wiggins Jr., the son of the former New England Patriots tight end.

Notice the trend?

Fisch’s “It’s Personal” campaign and vision for what Arizona could ultimately reach is making dividends on the recruiting trail, which was lackluster prior to his arrival.

Arizona linebacker Anthony Pandy, left, and wide receiver Stanley Berryhill answer questions during Pac-12 media day.

The downside to convincing future players that brighter days are ahead: Pitching current Wildcats that while the program will endure losing initially, the UA will reap the benefits down the line.

“You can be a part of the process by being the first,” Fisch said. “You can look back on it and say, ‘Hey, I was on that team. I was part of the change.’ Maybe the freshmen can say, ‘I benefit from the change,’ or the recruits can say, ‘I can’t wait to get there and take the change to a whole ‘nother level.’ What the seniors are looking at right now and what I keep challenging them to say is … ‘If we got better in October, November, what would that look like?’ Secondly, as we’re building the foundation, (the players) are the core. The house would fall over without a foundation, so this season is the foundation of the process and the change.”

The bad: Quarterback play still an issue

Arizona relied on Washington State transfer and in-state product Gunner Cruz to quarterback the Wildcats, which appeared to be the appropriate call considering he threw for 336 yards in the season-opening loss to BYU in Las Vegas.

However, Cruz’s crutches that were noticed in spring and preseason training camp, such as holding the ball too long on passes, carried over into gameplay.

Fisch decided to try Option B, swapping Cruz for second-year quarterback Will Plummer, who was thrusted into inopportune situations as a freshman in 2020, but finally earned a chance to win the starting job against NAU.

Two interceptions (one pick-six) in one of the worst losses in program history, especially when South Florida transfer Jordan McCloud led the Wildcats down the field for a potential game-tying drive, wasn’t Plummer’s best audition.

Arizona quarterback Jordan McCloud scrambles during the third quarter. UA was in the game into the fourth against the Ducks before losing 41-19.

So, Arizona turned to Option C, and gave McCloud the nod to start in the loss to Oregon, in which he completed 21 of 35 passes for 233 yards, one touchdown and had the Wildcats in position to take the Ducks down to the wire. Of course, he did toss five interceptions, including two red-zone picks and a pick-six. Oregon turned those five takeaways into 20 points.

“He did a lot of good things,” Fisch said. “But as I reminded him when I saw him this morning, you can’t shy away from the fact that we had five interceptions.”

Fisch added: “He doesn’t need to play hero ball. He doesn’t need to be Superman out there. The mistakes he made are correctable. I think part of it comes through experience in our system.”

McCloud joined Brandon Dawkins, Khalil Tate, Rhett Rodriguez, Grant Gunnell, Plummer and Cruz as Arizona’s starting quarterbacks since the start of the 2017 season.

McCloud, who didn’t join the team until preseason training camp in the summer, will take over the quarterback reins until further notice, but time will tell if he’s the right leader under center to begin the Fisch era. The Wildcats could find their answer on Saturday against a UCLA team fresh off a home loss to ASU.

“The things that he did do well gave us confidence that we can build off of that,” Fisch said. “I will take on the responsibility of really doing a better job of encouraging him to respect the football and to really understand that the most important thing you can do is not turn it over.”

The ugly: Losing to NAU

Arizona head coach Jedd Fisch stands on the sidelines in the final seconds of the Wildcats’ 21-19 upset loss to Northern Arizona. 

If you thought fans struggling to enter Arizona Stadium for the home opener because of digital ticketing and new metal detectors was a tactic to sell fans on the new regime, the Wildcats topped it the following week with a loss to NAU in front of 33,481 fans, the lowest at Arizona Stadium since joining the Pac-10 in 1978.

When the Wildcats lost to NAU, a 2-3 FCS team that lost to Northern Colorado the following week, Fisch and the Wildcats used “embarrassing” and “disheartening” to describe the defeat, but they weren’t going to allow the eerie Sept. 18 night dictate their season.

“Of course we’re always gonna be frustrated when the outcome is not what we want it to be. But we also recognize that we’re going to try to see the forest through the trees and not get caught up in one game,” Fisch said after the game.

When will Arizona finally win a game? Who knows, anything could happen. But two real possibilities are on the road against Colorado (1-4) on Oct. 16 or on Nov. 6 against Cal (1-4) for homecoming.

Until then, Arizona is in the same company as winless UConn, UMass and UNLV.

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Sports producer

Justin writes stories and produces digital content about UA football and basketball and high school football. A Tucson native, Justin graduated from the UA in 2017 and is the host of the Wildcast Podcast and a radio host on ESPN Tucson.

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