Why Kyle Whittingham’s Utah program was the ‘model’ for Jedd Fisch after taking over at Arizona
In his third season at the helm at Arizona, Fisch has done an excellent job turning the Wildcats’ program around
Back in 2021, soon after he was hired as Arizona’s head coach, Jedd Fisch said that Kyle Whittingham’s Utah football program was the “model” in the Pac-12 for what he wanted to turn Arizona into.
”I would say that they are the model in the Pac-12 for us, for what we would like to look like. Coach Whittingham, who I know very little but I’ve respected from afar, played him in 2015 at Michigan, played him in 2017 at UCLA,” Fisch said.
Utes on the air
No. 22 Utah (7-3, 4-3 Pac-12)
at No. 17 Arizona (7-3, 5-2 Pac-12)
Saturday, 12:30 p.m. MST
TV: Pac-12 Network
Radio: ESPN 700/92.1 FM
“... They’re just tough. They’re physical. They know exactly what they want to look like. Their defense looks a certain way. They recruit to that. They kind of have the same type of players that they just fill in. Offensively, they know exactly what they want to be. They play to that. Their consistency and the way they’ve been able to really keep their coaches together, keep their program together.”
In his third season at the helm at Arizona, Fisch has done an excellent job turning the Wildcats’ program around.
“I think they’re doing a great job, I’ll tell you that. I mean, he’s got that thing turned. I mean he started from scratch and rebuilt it his way and they’re playing really good football right now,” Whittingham said.
Fisch took a declining program over from Kevin Sumlin, who never turned a winning season in three years and went 0-5 in 2020. Wildcat fans knew the rebuild was going to take time, and Fisch went 1-11 in his first season as head coach — losing to Northern Arizona was the low point of the year — only defeating Cal.
Fisch delivered five wins the next year, the first time Arizona had done that since 2018, while continuing to recruit and get his players in the program. After Fisch took over, recruiting steadily improved from the cellar of Pac-12 recruiting rankings to No. 3 in the 247Sports Pac-12 recruiting rankings in 2022 and No. 7 in the rankings in 2023.
“That’s always the biggest factor is recruiting. And they’ve done a really nice job in the last three years of infusing talent into the program,” Whittingham said.
That influx of new talent has made a difference, and in 2023, Arizona is on track for its first season with more than seven wins since 2015.
The Wildcats are sitting at 7-3 overall (5-2 in conference play), still in contention for the school’s first-ever trip to the Pac-12 championship game, but need outside help even if they win their next two games against Utah and Arizona State.
It’s an impressive feat that Arizona is still in Pac-12 contention in the second-to-last week of the regular season, given what the program has looked like for much of the last 10 years.
Beating Arizona was a sticking point for Utah in the early Pac-12 years — after winning the first meeting as conference-mates, the Utes lost four straight to the Wildcats — but that reversed course over the last six meetings. Utah has won six consecutive over Arizona, with five of those six wins coming by multiple scores.
Unlike the last six meetings, this Saturday’s game in Arizona Stadium is anything but a guaranteed win for the Utes. Arizona is No. 17 In the College Football Playoff rankings, with a marquee win over Oregon State. Even the Wildcats’ three losses have been close: a 31-24 overtime loss at Mississippi State; a 43-41 three-overtime loss at USC; and a 31-24 loss vs. Washington. Arizona is favored by one point at its home stadium, which should have a good environment for the contest.
After Jayden de Laura’s injury four games into the season, redshirt freshman quarterback Noah Fifita has taken over — and shined — for the Wildcats.
The nephew of Steve Fifita, who starred at defensive tackle on Utah’s undefeated 2004 team and won defensive MVP honors at the 2005 Fiesta Bowl, has been one of the nation’s most accurate passers since taking over the starting role five weeks into the season.
Fifita has thrown for 1,735 yards and 16 touchdowns with four interceptions on 73.7% accuracy, and has kept the starting job even as de Laura became healthy. He’s averaging 278 passing yards per game as the starter, leading the No. 24-ranked passing offense in the country. Arizona is scoring 31.1 points per game.
“I think he’s a playmaker. He’s not the biggest guy. He’s 5-foot-11-ish, but he’s extremely savvy in the pocket,” Whittingham said. “He’s doing a good job running the offense, a really good job. ... He’s impressed me, what I’ve seen on tape has been very impressive.”
Fifita’s two main targets are Tetairoa McMillan (860 receiving yards and eight touchdowns on 61 catches) and Jacob Cowing (534 yards and 10 touchdowns on 72 receptions).
After facing a stout Washington offensive line that more than held its own against Utah’s ferocious defensive line, the Utes have an opportunity to get back on track against Arizona. While the Wildcats have a decent offensive line, they’ve allowed 20 sacks this year, including allowing four against Oregon State and three against UCLA. Arizona is most vulnerable in the middle of the line.
After having a quiet game against Washington, breaking his streak of five straight games with at least one sack, defensive end Jonah Elliss will face left tackle Jordan Morgan, who is projected as a first-round NFL draft pick and is rated as the best Arizona offensive lineman by Pro Football Focus, or right tackle Jonah Savaiinaea, who grades out as the Wildcats’ second-best lineman, depending on where Elliss lines up.
“They’re just tough. They’re physical. They know exactly what they want to look like. Their defense looks a certain way. They recruit to that.” — Arizona coach Jedd Fisch on the type of players Utah football attracts
The Wildcats rank in the middle of the pack in college football in terms of rushing yards per game, with 157.7. Jonah Coleman, who is coming off of a 179-yard performance vs. Colorado, leads Arizona with 744 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 104 carries, spelled by DJ Williams, who has 347 yards and four touchdowns on 78 carries.
Arizona is the No. 37 scoring defense in the nation, allowing just 20.9 points per game. The Wildcats rank No. 13 in opponent rushing yards per game (99.4) and No. 81 in opponent passing yards per game (235.3). Like Utah, Arizona is going to try and stop the run early.
Linebacker Jacob Manu has been excellent against the run and leads the Wildcats with 84 tackles and 5.5 sacks. Fellow linebacker Taylor Upshaw has contributed 7.5 sacks. An Arizona player to watch in the secondary is cornerback Tacario Davis, who has one of the Wildcats’ two interceptions this season and 12 pass deflections while allowing just a 44.2% completion rate when he’s targeted.
It depends which version of Utah’s offense shows up. The Utes can put up points (vs. Cal, USC, Arizona State, first half against Washington), but have had down moments (vs. Oregon, second half at Washington).
Can Utah play more like it did in the first half against the Huskies and rev up the offense early? The Utes hung 306 yards and 28 points on No. 5 Washington in the first two quarters of play last week.
“We got to take it a day at a time, lean on each other and just keep grinding. We got two more games left, so we just got to come out with those as Ws,” running back Ja’Quinden Jackson said.