Ahead of Saturday’s game in Tuscon, ATQ traded questions and answers with our Wildcat sister site, Desert Swarm. Many thanks to Brian J. Pedersen of DS for his insights on this match.
The impending departure of USC and UCLA, and the survivability of the Pac-12, continues to be a hot topic for every remaining team. What is the feeling with the Wildcat fanbase about how the future plays out for Arizona? What is your perspective?
Brian Pedersen - The initial kneejerk reaction was ‘how soon can we join the Big 12?’ There’s still a little of that, but now with the expectation that the Pac-12 will survive the mindset has moved to capitalizing on the impending departures. The coaching staff is already using that in its recruiting pitch, selling California recruits on the proximity to Arizona and not their families having to make those long trips to the Midwest. And with the expansion of the playoff, thus guaranteeing the Pac-12 a spot, there’s really no need for Arizona to consider going elsewhere.
The Wildcats are in their second season under coach Jedd Fisch. I don’t think anyone can reasonably expect immediate success in his position. What is your impression of how Arizona’s rebuild is progressing?
Brian Pedersen - At this point it has to be considered a success simply for the fact that you can see noticeable improvement and consistent competitiveness. The latter was even evident last year, with hardly any talent whatsoever and the team was still in several games late. Now, thanks to a massive overhaul, Fisch’s playcalling has the players to make it happen on offense.
Arizona faces their first ranked opponent of the season in Oregon; the first in a Pac-12 gauntlet of five or six teams. The Wildcats are likely underdogs in all of these games. Win or lose, what do you think will qualify as success or improvement in these games?
Brian Pedersen - That barometer will be based on being able to stay within striking distance for as long as possible in every game. In both losses, Arizona was leading early and/or at the half, so it hasn’t had a game it had no shot at winning yet. There shouldn’t be a realistic expectation to win any more than one of the next six, and probably only the last of those at home against Washington State, but having that feel possible during the games would be an indication that progress is continuing.
That being said, losing the next six and then beating ASU for the first time since 2016 should still constitute a massively successful season.
The Ducks have not won in Arizona since 2011. What needs to happen for the Wildcats to pull off an upset on Saturday?
Brian Pedersen - First and foremost, they cannot turn the ball over. The defense has been hit and miss, mostly miss of late, and thus cannot be relied on to get stops when dealing with a short field. Of Arizona’s eight giveaways, six came in the losses to Mississippi State and Cal, and opponents have turned those takeaways into 27 points.
Who is on offense that Ducks fans may not necessarily know about and should keep an eye on?
Brian Pedersen - There are so many newcomers standing out on offense, but the biggest breakthrough players have been a couple of under-the-radar targets. Dorian Singer was a walk-on last season who didn’t play until the final five games, then got put on scholarship and has had 6 or more catches in four games this season. And tight end Tanner McLachlan, a transfer from Southern Utah, walked on in the spring while still rehabbing a torn ACL and has since been given a schollie while also becoming the most prolific UA player at that position since Gronk.
Who is on defense that Ducks fans may not necessarily know about and should keep an eye on?
Brian Pedersen - Hunter Echols spent 5 seasons at USC where he hardly played, but with Arizona he’s become the best player on the field. He has great instincts playing on the edge and always seems to be around the ball.
Tell us how you see this game playing out and what your score prediction is.
Brian Pedersen - Arizona will have a lead at least once in the first half, but unless its defense can stop the run, the pressure to score every time will lead to a mistake or two. Oregon pulls away in the second half and wins 41-28.