Last season behind QB Jayden de Laura, Arizona finished sixth in the nation in passing offense, 20th in total offense, and averaged more than 30 points per game. So far, the offense hasn’t quite clicked last year, averaging just 27 points per game and 76th in the nation in EPA per drop back.
The status of de Laura is up in the air after suffering an ankle injury in the second half of the Stanford game. If he can’t go, the coaches will start the 5-11, 194 pound redshirt freshman QB Noah Fifita.
While Arizona boasts some very good receivers, it all starts with the 6-0, 205 pound de Laura. He’s a playmaker who currently is top 10 in the country in total touchdowns (9 passing, 3 rushing), and has completed nearly 70% of his passes for 1,069 yards. His 55 first downs are top 20 in the country. He’s also rushed and scrambled his way to 131 yards. That’s the good de Laura.
The bad de Luara is 5 interceptions and a fumble in Arizona’s first two games. It’s being sacked 6 times already this season. He’ll hold onto the ball way too long, running around trying to make things happen. He’s nearly as likely to make a big time throw as he is a turnover worthy play; per PFF his big time throw rate is 5.3% and turnover worthy play rate is 5.4%. The good news for Arizona fans is that he’s avoided turnovers in his last two outings, but didn’t play well against Stanford (6.0 yards per attempt) before getting hurt. Even with a future high round NFL talent in LT Jordan Morgan protecting him, he couldn’t avoid two classic bad de Laura sacks last week. RT Jonah Savaiinaea is one of the Pac-12’s better tackles as well.
QB Noah Fifita is the backup and could start on Saturday night. He’s seen very limited action, but did lead the offense down the field for the go ahead score against Stanford. He was 4/4 on the drive for 47 yards, and ran twice for 9 yards. As a player he’s similar to de Laura - the undersized play making type. At 2:08 in the clip below you can see him make an athletic move to avoid a sack and hit TE Tanner McLachlan for a nice gain.
Whoever starts at quarterback will have two excellent wide receivers helping him out. Leading the team in receptions with 28 is WR Jacob Cowing, a quick and shifty slot receiver. He gets a lot of screens and short stuff thrown his way (8.5 yards per catch) so he can be put in catch and run situations. He doesn’t make many contested catches but has 238 yards and 3 TDs on the season.
Lining up outside will be the 6-5 WR Tetairoa McMillan, who has 21 receptions but a whopping 341 yards and 3 TDs already. He came in as a big time recruit and has more than lived up to the hype. He’s their downfield threat at over 16 yards per catch and has secured 3 of his 4 contested catch attempts this season. He had 7 catches for 132 yards and two touchdowns against the Huskies last season and makes spectacular catches look routine. TE Tanner McLachlan will contribute as well, with 10 catches for 163 yards this year.
Running the ball primarily will be RB Michael Wiley, a fifth year player who has seen his production steadily increase every year and finally has the lead running back duties. He’s an elusiveness runner who you want in the open field and using his speed to get outside. His big contribution over his years in Tuscon, however, has been as a receiver, eclipsing 30 receptions in each of the past two years. He has 15 already this season for 132 yards, with a higher yards per catch average than Cowing. He’s been adequate running the ball this year - 40 rushes, 176 yards (4.4 YPC), and a touchdown. He was injured in the Stanford game and his status is in question against Washington.
Filling in for the injured Wiley, RB D.J. Williams finished with 11 carries for 39 yards and the go ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter against Stanford. When the Wildcats need inside running, they turn to the 5-9, 225 bruiser Jonah Coleman. He doesn’t force as many missed tackles as Wiley, but has the same amount of yards with exactly half the carries. He also gets involved in the pass game with 103 yards on 9 receptions. He also filled in admirably against Stanford when Wiley went down.
Like many offenses featuring an athletic quarterback, Arizona runs a lot of zone read and RPO type of plays. The offensive coordinator is Brennan Carroll, son of Pete. He spoke both in the off season and after Arizona’s 38-3 victory over NAU in week 1 about a desire to make the offense more versatile. Specifically, wanting to get running backs more involved in the pass game, which so far has shown up in the numbers. This is an offense not afraid to test the middle of the field - they have 43 pass attempts between the numbers vs. 38 outside the hashes. It’s been a mixed bag - de Luara has thrown 4 TDs over the middle, but it’s also where 4 of his 5 interceptions have gone.
While not bad, the Arizona offense hasn’t quite hit the ground running after a big 2022 season. Hoping to build on that, the Wildcats have instead sputtered to start games. After scoring a touchdown on their first possession of the season, they have not scored a single point in a first quarter since. While de Laura has avoided turnovers in his past two games, that was against UTEP and Stanford, and he still took bad sacks against the Cardinal. They’ve only eclipsed 30 points against UTEP and FCS Northern Arizona, both at home.
This is the offense with the most talent and proven playmakers that Washington has faced this year, even if they haven’t found their gear yet. However, they can be put off schedule with mistakes and turnovers. Up and down the defense, the Huskies have been making plays on the ball, even if the pass rush hasn’t quite revved up yet. If de Laura plays on a recovering ankle, he could be hesitant to run and hold onto the ball longer than he already does, setting up sacks for ZTF and Bralen Trice (they will have their hands full with some excellent tackles). The secondary is playing confident and likely wants de Laura to test them. If Fifita plays, it’s anybody’s guess how he reacts to the moment, but I like Washington’s chances on defense against a player making his first college start for an offense that isn’t exactly a “just add water” operation.