Arizona Football Offensive Preview
Arizona has been competitive in 6 of their 8 games this season, that is, within one possession at some point in the 4th quarter. Is this the week they finally put it all together?
I’m going to spoil one of the most-oft repeated facts you’ll hear during the TV broadcast of any Arizona game: it’s been over 2 years since Arizona last won a football game. On Saturday, the number of days since their last win will stand at 763 days, with Arizona’s last win occurring on October 5, 2019, against Colorado. Arizona is approaching historic levels of futility.
Despite this, only San Diego State and Colorado have truly blown them out from start to finish. Arizona reminds me a lot of this year’s Detroit Lions, who I am now unfortunately a fan of, thanks to Jared Goff: they’ve held tough against vastly superior opponents (for the Lions: the Rams, Ravens, etc; for the Wildcats: BYU, USC, etc), but they’ve also embarrassed themselves against weaker competition (like the Philadelphia Eagles, the Colorado Buffaloes, or FCS Northern Arizona).
Like Detroit, the new head coach Jedd Fisch has his under-talented team fighting hard. Fisch was previously an assistant with LA Rams under Sean McVay, and prior to that was the UCLA offensive coordinator under Jim Mora (he was also the interim head coach at UCLA after they fired Mora, and so Fisch’s lone win as an FBS head coach was actually over Cal, when they spoiled Cal’s bowl hopes in Wilcox’s first season in 2017).
I had a lot of trouble putting this preview together for the same reason why Arizona has struggled this season: they’ve had absolutely no consistency on offense this season. One big part of that is due to injuries, as Arizona is currently on their third-string quarterback, Will Plummer. The Arizona offense looks one way with former Air Raid QB Gunner Cruz, then they have to shift gears completely for their dual-threat running QB Jordan McCloud, and they have to transition yet again to another offensive style to support Will Plummer. Will Plummer is the last scholarship quarterback on the roster; behind him are walk-ons. You figure that should factor into their play-calling as well, because you probably don’t want to run the ball with your last remaining QB on the roster (but also, Arizona knows you know that, and they’ve tried to exploit this; more on that later). I have to give credit to Arizona there, they definitely know what opponents are expecting on a play, and have used that to their advantage, either through clever play-calls or trick plays.
For most of the season, Arizona has started off strong, only to eventually collapse in the 4th quarter, but they finally bucked that trend last week against USC, nearly completing a huge comeback in the 4th quarter (part of that may be USC’s futility without Drake London, as Arizona was up 27-13 against the London-less Trojans).
Arizona, despite their faults, will be competitive. Cal has not played well historically in Arizona (the heat? the artificial crowd noise?), and they have yet to win a road game this season. If Arizona can both start strong and finish strong, they can absolutely pull off the upset, so Cal cannot sleep on them. Cal probably represents Arizona’s best hope at a win this season, so I am expecting them to pull out all the stops to try and squeak out a moral victory for the season.
Before being lost to the season due to injury, I believe that Gunner Cruz was Arizona’s best passer and Jordan McCloud Arizona’s best dual-threat quarterback. Will Plummer is, well, neither of those things. Of course, “third-string QB” sounds worse than it is here, as Arizona’s QBs are more of an “Option A, B, C” situation than a “starter, backup, and backup to the backup” situation— Plummer was actually given the opportunity to start prior to all the Arizona injuries, although he lost the starting job after losing to FCS Northern Arizona. Arizona’s offense under Plummer has mainly been short/safe throws to receivers or backs to let them pick up yards after the catch, occasionally punctuated by the deep shot downfield to keep defenses honest.
Plummer is prone to both overthrows and underthrows on the deep ball, but he does find the sweet spot from time to time:
Arizona has some speedy receivers that can get behind the defense, so Plummer often looks his best on these types of throws:
Arizona is not going to run a sophisticated read offense under Plummer, but he can at least identify obvious mismatches pre-snap. Here, USC for some reason lines up their best pass rushing defensive end/outside linebacker Drake Jackson in coverage against Arizona’s tight end, a mismatch Plummer exploits:
Plummer is looking sharper later in the season, with a decent game against a very tough Washington passing defense (2 INTs, but one of those was a last second desperation Hail Mary to end the game), and a pretty good game last week against a very questionable USC passing defense.
I believe Arizona is trying to simplify Plummer’s reads now, because that was something he struggled in at the beginning of the season. Against Northern Arizona, he locks onto his first read and stares him down for an easy interception:
I don’t have any explanation for the following play. It’s first down, Plummer has a checkdown open in his tight end and probably a receiver on the crossing route, but he predetermined where he wanted to go with the ball and tries to force the throw:
While I admire Plummer’s willingness to stand in the pocket and make throws when he know he’s going to take a big hit, it’s also apparent that the quickened internal clock can cause Plummer to make mistakes. Here, the corner blitz results in a rarely seen interception by a nose tackle:
Plummer is a pro-style quarterback, but a bit like last week’s opposing QB Chance Nolan: Plummer isn’t going to burn you with his feet, but he absolutely has the ability to pick up the first down on his feet when he’s given room to run.
Again, here’s where I remind you that Arizona does not have any scholarship quarterbacks remaining after Will Plummer. If Plummer is injured, you’d have to imagine that (barring some sort of Baker Mayfield level diamond in the rough walk-on QB) that their hopes to win a game this season are pretty much over. So if Will Plummer is running the ball, he should slide, right? Well, not so much. He does usually slide, but he’s also taken advantage of defenses being reluctant to hit him when they are anticipating a slide.
For example, multiple Colorado defenders have a chance on the tackle, but they seemingly expect Plummer to stop in front of them:
He did something similar against USC, and I don’t know if USC also expected him to slide (down 17 points on 3rd and goal from the 16 yard line), but the following run can only be attributed to recklessness:
I admire the bravado of putting your health on the line to help your team make a comeback, but against USC, you’re just as likely to be blown up doing this slide or no slide, in bounds or out of bounds, before the play ends or after the play ends, and so on.
Because Arizona usually doesn’t want to risk the health of their quarterback running the ball, Arizona has their own version of the wildcat (named for the Kansas State Wildcats, by the way)—like the Angry Beaver last week—run by former quarterback and converted wide receiver, Jamarye Joiner. I was unsure of whether or not to do this section, because at the time of this writing, Joiner is currently listed as doubtful on the injury report. However, I have no idea what they’ll do without Joiner, so it couldn’t hurt.
Jamarye Joiner is an overall phenomenal athlete and one of their best wide receivers, leading the team in receiving yards in 2019, even after coming to Arizona to play quarterback in 2018. There’s not a single aspect of Joiner’s game I would criticize— he’s fast, he’s elusive, and he’s even a good run blocker, which is not something you expect to see when the quarterback is handing the ball off and then lead blocking.
Here he is running it in for the touchdown despite Washington actually having 12 men lined up in the defense:
When Jack Colletto and the Oregon State Beavers lined up in the “Angry Beaver” formation, teams know a run is coming. Having a designated quarterback to run the ball in a pretty big run tell, which is why Arizona suddenly went the other direction, using Will Plummer to run the ball and Jamarye Joiner to take deep shots down the field:
The majority of the time that Arizona is running the wildcat, the quarterback is usually lined up wide as an apathetic outside receiver decoy. However, last game was the first time I’ve seen the quarterback do something on one of these plays, as Arizona ran the trick play:
Trick play or not, Arizona has done well to use the defense’s expectations against them.
Probably the brightest spot on the offense, and the biggest reason for future hope for Arizona fans, is the young and talented cadre of running backs. It originally looked like sophomore Michael Wiley would be the feature back, especially after getting second billing as a true freshman and the senior back departed, but Arizona has more recently switched to a running back by committee approach (injuries may or may not also be a factor here in distributing carries).
Michael Wiley is probably the most versatile back, with good vision and cutback ability, as well as a decent mix of speed and power. He’s also by far the most reliable blocker in pass protection, which usually results in a running back seeing more snaps.
Wiley isn’t the shiftiest back and typically opts to power through tackles, but he also demonstrates some nice balance:
Behind Wiley is the big freshman power back Jalen John (not to be confused with the wide receiver, Jalen Johnson). John is a downhill runner who does well in short yardage situations, and currently averages more rushing yards per carry amongst players with at least 15 rushing attempts.
Behind them is the speedier and shiftier back in Drake Anderson. Anderson, a transfer from Northwestern, was actually receiving the bulk of the carries in late September/early October, but I believe he suffered an injury and has been limited ever since.
Anderson has more speed and shows more of a cutback ability than the heavier backs on the roster:
The back with the most big play potential is likely the freshman Stevie Rocker Jr., another smaller but speedier running back with some homerun ability:
The Arizona running backs do well to create their own yards, as they’ve been putting up comparable numbers to other running backs in the Pac-12 with far more talented offensive lines.
Given the quarterback situation this year for the Wildcats, the onus has been placed on the receivers to make big plays on offense. Arizona will run a number of simple and safe plays (screen passes, swing passes, “passes” to the receiver on the jet sweep, etc), and put the weight on the receivers to pick up yards after the catch.
By far the most reliable receiver for Arizona is Stanley Berryhill III. Berryhill has sure hands, can make something out of nothing when given the ball in space, and he’s the receiver that Arizona most often turns to when they need to make a play (3rd down conversion, etc).
Even though Berryhill is Arizona’s leading receiver, with twice as many catches and almost twice as many yards as the next leading receiver, I really didn’t take that many highlights of him, because the vast majority of his plays are “good plays,” but not really “wow plays” (like the one above). Berryhill will make a move to get the first down, or he’ll make the catch in traffic, or just do what he needs to do, just without all that much flashiness to it.
Arizona’s deep threat receiver is Tayvian Cunningham. He probably has the most speed of any receiver, and frequently just gets behind the defense on go-routes:
The passes that the Arizona receivers are catching downfield are usually less than perfect, but Cunningham is good at adjusting to the ball in mid-air:
I don’t know what Plummer was thinking on this throw, but he owes Cunningham a thank you letter for not letting this one get picked off. I have no idea how Cunningham came down with this one.
Most of the Arizona receivers are pretty good at getting yards after the catch. Here’s Cunningham after the catch:
The other top target for Plummer will be BJ Casteel. Casteel started the season off strong, but he’s seen a smaller number of targets after some issues with drops.
Here’s Casteel on a run after the catch:
I’m not sure if Casteel just has a case of the yips recently, but he was also a deep threat receiver last season. Here, like Cunningham, Casteel shows a nice ability to adjust to the ball to make the catch:
Cal cleaned up their tackling issues last game, but let’s hope that can continue into this game, because a big part of Arizona’s offense is to be able to break off plays like the ones seen above.
I’m including special teams here because I have a sneaking suspicion it might play a factor in the game Saturday. I can’t tell you Arizona’s punter’s name off the top of my head, which means he’s probably middle of the Pac as I haven’t noticed him one way or the other (spoiler: his name is Kyle Ostendorp, and Arizona is 5th in net punting yards).
Arizona’s kicker is Lucas Havrisik. Havrisik has a big leg—kicking a career-long 57 yard FG his freshman year—but I’d say that he’s inconsistent at best. He’ll occasionally shank a short field goal, and anything over 40 yards is a coinflip at best.
Tayvian Cunningham typically returns kickoffs, and Stanley Berryhill III typically returns punts. As you could probably guess from the previous section, both of them are liable to break off a big return, which can be the difference in a close game:
Lastly, Cal needs to expect the unexpected from Arizona. I would be surprised if Arizona didn’t try at least a couple of trick plays, or try to catch Cal off-guard on special teams. Here’s a fake punt they pulled off last week:
Is Cal the better team? Yes. Should Cal win? Also yes. Can anything happen on any given Saturday? Absolutely. Cal hasn’t beaten Arizona since 2009 (with a number of freaky bad juju games since then), and they haven’t won in Tuscon since 2004. Arizona might be 0-8 for the season, but they’re still fighting hard, and pretending each week that they’re 0-0. Arizona would love to squeak out one win, any win, anywhere on their schedule. Don’t let this be a trap game.