The Star’s Michael Lev presents five storylines of interest as the Arizona Wildcats host Washington on Friday night at Arizona Stadium. Kickoff is slated for 7:30 p.m. The game will air on ESPN2.
QB Will Plummer working on deep breaths, passes
Playing quarterback at the highest levels of football can be overwhelming at times. You have the ball in your hands every play. You have to make countless decisions every game. You can go from hero to goat in an instant.
Sometimes it helps to simply breathe.
Will Plummer’s coaches have reminded him of that as he takes over again as the Arizona Wildcats’ starting quarterback. The second-year freshman plays the game a little too fast at times. So just before every snap, he makes sure to take a deep breath. It’s a quick and basic way to calm himself down.
“Our strength coach, Tyler Owens, told me that Mac Jones used to do that at Alabama,” Plummer said. “So I tried it out. I thought it worked.”
Plummer entered in the third quarter of last week’s game at Colorado after Gunner Cruz injured his thumb. Cruz will miss the rest of the season. So will Jordan McCloud. That leaves Plummer as the last healthy scholarship quarterback.
Plummer will make his second start of the season Friday night against Washington. He’s hopeful that it goes better than his first.
Plummer got the nod in Week 3 against NAU. He helped Arizona take a 13-0 lead but threw a pair of interceptions that helped the Lumberjacks rally for a 21-19 victory. It was NAU’s first win over Arizona since 1932.
Adding injury to insult, Plummer hurt his throwing shoulder in the third quarter.
“That's probably one of the worst nights of my life,” Plummer said. “I didn't throw for about a week. So I was out for a little bit. Kind of fell down on the depth chart.
“I feel like I've come a long way since then. I feel like I'm ready to go.”
Plummer believes he’s in a good place physically and mentally. His shoulder has healed; he has more experience; and he knows the job is his as long as he stays healthy and performs.
“He's got enough stuff to get us a chance to win this weekend,” offensive coordinator Brennan Carroll said. “I can't wait to see it.”
But it remains to be seen whether Plummer can transform his physical tools — including a quick release and quick feet — into consistent production. He has completed only 50.7% of his passes with two touchdowns and three interceptions.
Plummer said he’s been “a little bit too antsy in the pocket” at times. He felt as if he found the right tempo on the last drive against Colorado. Arizona reached the 20-yard line before turning the ball over on downs.
Plummer, who appeared in three games as a true freshman last year, is still adjusting to the college game. It’s taken him a while to realize he doesn’t have to play hero ball to move the offense. It’s a departure from Gilbert High School, where Plummer sometimes was a one-man show.
UA coach Jedd Fisch said Plummer is still in the process of “recognizing you don't have to throw 65 yards to hit on a 55-yard pass. You don't have to feel like everything has to be the hardest throw, the toughest throw, the greatest throw. ... Not everything has to be done in fast-forward.”
Plummer just needs to take it one breath at a time.
Midseason winners include Stanley Berryhill, Christian Roland-Wallace
Arizona has fallen well short of achieving its team goals halfway through the 2021 season. The Wildcats are 0-6 and have been unable to end the nation’s longest losing streak.
But Arizona still has had several standout individual performers. We’re going to shine the spotlight on some of them via our midseason awards.
Offensive MVP: WR Stanley Berryhill III
Honorable mention: C Josh McCauley
Berryhill has done it all for the Wildcats. He’s their top receiver, their fifth-leading rusher and also covers punts. Berryhill’s 48 receptions are a career high, and he ranks second in the Pac-12 behind USC’s Drake London in catches per game (8.0) and receiving yards per game (74.2). McCauley has played every offensive snap and is Arizona’s highest-graded offensive lineman, per Pro Football Focus.
Defensive MVP: CB Christian Roland-Wallace
Honorable mention: DT Kyon Barrs
It’s a tight race between these two. We lean toward Roland-Wallace because he never leaves the field (team-leading 371 defensive snaps) and plays a position that has a high degree of difficulty in Don Brown’s system. Roland-Wallace has one of Arizona’s three interceptions and has yet to miss a tackle, per PFF. Barrs also has zero missed tackles. He leads the team with four TFLs and 2.5 sacks.
Top newcomer: CB Isaiah Rutherford
Honorable mention: LB Treshaun Hayward
Although he struggled a bit at Colorado coming off an illness, Rutherford mostly has lived up to his billing after transferring from Notre Dame. He has been targeted 16 times yet has allowed only seven receptions, per PFF. He also has two pass breakups and a fumble recovery. Hayward is second on the team in tackles but currently isn’t with the team because of what Jedd Fisch called “personal reasons.”
Most improved player: P Kyle Ostendorp
Honorable mention: WR Boobie Curry
Ostendorp was so far down the depth chart last season that he didn’t even appear in a game. Now he’s averaging 47.3 yards per punt — up almost 8 yards over his 2019 mark (39.7). Ostendorp still needs to improve at pinning teams inside the 20 (eight punts inside the 20, nine touchbacks). Curry, a third-year sophomore, already has set career marks in catches (13), yards (147) and touchdowns (two).
Second-half breakout candidate: WR/QB Jamarye Joiner
Honorable mention: RB Jalen John
Joiner dabbled a bit as a “Wildcat” QB against Colorado, and we expect to see more of that in the coming weeks with so few healthy options at the position. Joiner will continue to play receiver as well; he’s just starting to round into form after missing most of the offseason while recovering from foot surgery. John had a breakout game in Boulder (11 carries, 71 yards) and should have an increased role over the final six games.
Christian Young looks to lock up Washington TE
Aside from San Diego State’s Daniel Bellinger, tight ends haven’t torched Arizona’s defense this season.
They certainly haven’t dominated the Wildcats the way Washington’s Cade Otton did last season.
Otton caught seven passes for 100 yards and a touchdown in the Huskies’ 44-27 victory over the Cats.
Don Brown wasn’t with the UA program at that time. Neither was Christian Young.
Young didn’t play after the 2020 opener against USC because of injuries. He has become a stalwart in Brown’s scheme as the “Viper,” a linebacker-safety hybrid whose responsibilities include covering the tight end.
Aside from a handful of plays — including a missed tackle on a 73-yard gain by SDSU’s Bellinger and a misread on an 18-yard TD by Oregon’s Spencer Webb — Young has been “pretty damn good” against tight ends, Brown said.
It requires a combination of strength and speed that made Young the ideal candidate to play Viper.
“Tight ends don't really have that flashy movement to them, but they have sure hands,” Young said. “It takes a lot more strength to deal with tight ends versus running backs and wide receivers. So you just really have to make sure to not let them outmuscle you.”
Otton has 16 catches for 164 yards and a touchdown in four appearances this season. How does Young see that matchup?
“He's a good player,” Young said. “I'm a good player, too.”
Running back Jalen John gives Wildcats hopes
Arizona didn’t score a point against Colorado last week, suffering its first shutout since 2012. When the Wildcats did move the ball, Jalen John usually had it in his hands.
The second-year freshman notched career bests with 11 carries for 71 yards. Forty-four of those yards came after contact, according to Pro Football Focus.
“Really physical,” UA offensive coordinator Brennan Carroll said of John, who’s listed at 5-11, 221 pounds. “He was able to run through some arm tackles. It just gave us a little different mode that we can play in. So I'd expect some more of him this weekend.”
John got an extended look after tailback Drake Anderson got hurt in the first quarter. Anderson is considered a game-time decision for Friday’s game against Washington.
Although he was Arizona’s most effective offensive player, John wasn’t satisfied with his performance.
“I definitely feel like I left some stuff on the field,” he said after the game.
John landed just short of the goal line on a 23-yard run in the second quarter. He then failed to score on a pair of runs from the 1.
Still, John’s running style and production had UA fans excited about his future — both immediate and long term. John and Stevie Rocker Jr. give the Wildcats a pair of 200-plus-pound backs who have three more years of eligibility.
UA coach Jedd Fisch believes Rocker’s early success inspired John. John didn’t disagree.
“It's always a competition,” he said. “I push him. He pushes me.”
First loss in UA streak looked promising at halftime
Arizona’s school-record 18-game losing streak began on Oct. 12, 2019, against Washington — the Wildcats’ opponent Friday night.
What’s interesting about that game — which ended with the Huskies winning in a rout — is that Arizona led at halftime.
It’s one of only three times the Wildcats have held a halftime advantage over the course of the streak.
Here are the halftime and final scores of Arizona’s past 18 games:
• Washington: Up, 17-13 (51-27)
• USC: Down, 17-0 (41-14)
• Stanford: Down, 31-24 (41-31)
• Oregon State: Down, 35-19 (56-38)
• Oregon: Down, 21-6 (34-6)
• Utah: Down, 14-0 (35-7)
• Arizona State: Up, 7-6 (24-14)
• USC: Down, 17-13 (34-30)
• Washington: Down, 24-0 (44-27)
• UCLA: Down, 20-7 (27-10)
• Colorado: Down, 14-13 (24-13)
• Arizona State: Down, 42-7 (70-7)
• BYU: Down, 14-3 (24-16)
• San Diego State: Down, 35-7 (38-14)
• NAU: Up, 13-7 (21-19)
• Oregon: Down, 24-10 (41-19)
• UCLA: Down, 14-13 (34-16)
• Colorado: Down, 6-0 (34-0)