The Arizona Wildcats and their fist-pumping coach, Jedd Fisch, beat visiting North Dakota State deep into Saturday night, 31-28.
Talk about your Saturday night special at Arizona Stadium.
Arizona is on the rise, indeed.
The win was so huge – even if it was against a FCS team – that it had some Arizona players doing back flips. Jump for joy indeed, especially after the back-and-forth the two teams went through all night.
It was Arizona that gave the final blow(s) when it drove down the field midway through the fourth quarter for a drive of the recent ages (work with me here) and a defensive stop that was signature just for its importance. Figure that if UA didn’t stop NDSU, the game likely would have gone into overtime or resulted in an Arizona loss.
Instead, Arizona is now 2-1 and headed to California next weekend to open the Pac-12 season.
“It’s a step forward, but we go on to Pac-12 play,” Fisch said in his postgame press conference.
Where the competition presumably will be a step up, although the Bison gave UA all it could handle … and vice versa.
“It was a man’s game,” Fisch said, talking about the defenses although it could be stated for all the game.
It took a near clean game from Arizona to get the win, but it did what it had to get it.
From the most obvious plays or moments:
Jonah Coleman ran like a man possessed in the final drive, not willing to go down a number of runs. His 32 yards never looked so good.
Tetairoa McMillan coming down with a 19-yard catch on a third-down to keep a TD drive alive.
Jayden de Laura running and running like his life depended on it. Certainly, an Arizona win depended on it. It would have helped last week vs. Mississippi State, but, heck, that was last week. He finished with 50 yards that seemed like 100.
“The biggest thing I would say about Jayden and I and how we call the game and what we ask him to do is we’ve only done this for three games together,” Fisch said. “We’re just building a relationship. We’re building trust, and I’m trying to learn what he needs and how to coach him every day in practice, and he needs to learn what I expect and what I want. He’s a sophomore. We’re just trying to work through things, and I thought that it was a great learning experience last Saturday night. He probably saw some opportunities that he could have paid off and run. I’m glad to see that he did it this week.”
It was the difference between a win and a loss. It was those gaps he found that helped move the chains for first downs. Then it was his arm that helped Arizona keep the game close or in the lead in what was one of the better games Arizona fans have witnessed in years at Arizona Stadium.
It had both sides – lots of yellow in the stadium – on edge.
Eventually, the edge went to Arizona.
“Our players did a fantastic job,” Fisch said. “It was a very clean football game. Four for four in the red zone, no turnovers. One penalty. Those are the things that when you talk about what our goals are offensively, defensively, and as a football team, we say we want to attack and protect the ball. We did that.”
It helped Arizona was good enough defensively, despite NDSU running up the middle numerous times for nice drives. The biggest – or second biggest given NDSU was stopped on its final possession – was Arizona stopping the Bison after failing to move the chains while in its own territory on a gutsy fourth-down call.
“Hunter Echols’ sack fumble was a huge part of the game. We said we want to score and defend the red zone,” Fisch said. “We were four for four in the red zone. And we want to be disciplined. When you have one penalty against a very good football team, that’s really, really disciplined football. Credit to our staff. I think our coaches did a great job preparing our team.”
Now, Arizona moves on to the Pac-12, where the program after two games is one of the conference’s feel-good stories so far. Just a month ago, few (likely) had UA going 2-1 in the preconference schedule, but here it is.
“I think we’re getting better,” Fisch said. “We are believing in the process of improving. We recognize that we’re (going to) have all sorts of different ways to win a game. We might win a game on offense defense, special teams. It might not be pretty, it might be pretty, I don’t know. But I know that our team embraces the grind, trusts the process, plays with passion, loves their teammates. If you do those four things and keep that next play mentality, we’ll do our best to get better next week.”
What’s clear – and it showed throughout Saturday night – Arizona played with a confidence not seen in two-plus seasons. Maybe more.
“This win is a big confidence booster for us,” de Laura said. “Everybody counted us out and it’ll probably be like that the whole year, but we just know that we’ve got each other’s backs. We’ve got to play four quarters, it’s not one half, the game’s not over until the clock says 0:00. I would say it’s a good confidence booster going into Pac-12.”