Remember when Arizona had the best rushing attack in the Pac-12?
For three consecutive seasons, 2016-18, the Wildcats ranked first in the conference in rushing. It wasn’t all a product of Rich Rodriguez’s system or Khalil Tate’s legs either. RichRod was no longer the coach in 2018; Tate only ran wild in ’17.
Arizona ranked third or better in the league every year but one from 2012-19. As we noted when we wrote about this subject last December, rushing was the one thing the Wildcats could do well if all else failed.
Last season — an incomplete, weird season — signaled a drop-off. Arizona finished eighth in the Pac-12 in rushing.
This season? Arizona’s running game has fallen off a cliff. It’s practically nonexistent.
The school that led the conference in rushing for three years running (pun intended) now ranks last. The UA is averaging 79.3 rushing yards per game, 25.7 fewer than 11th-place Washington. That total is barely half of last year’s average of 156.4. It’s been on a steady descent since the glory days of 2017 (309.3).
Why has Arizona’s run game deteriorated so drastically? That’s what we’re going to explore in this week’s “Cats Stats.”
Specifically, we’re going to try answer this question regarding the Wildcats’ meager rushing output: Is it because they can’t run the ball — or because they won’t?
By “they,” we mean Jedd Fisch, Arizona’s first-year coach, offensive architect and play-caller. Fisch, whose 0-3 team visits No. 3 Oregon on Saturday, has a history of directing offenses that lean more on the pass than the run. There’s nothing wrong with that in a vacuum. But personnel and circumstances should factor into those decisions.
To get a picture of Fisch’s tendencies, we looked at the four seasons he served as an offensive coordinator in college. (We excluded his two years with the Jacksonville Jaguars, because the NFL is a different beast.)
At Minnesota in 2009, the Golden Gophers averaged 29.9 rushing attempts and 32.8 passing attempts per game. (These numbers are sack adjusted and a great example of why it’s important to look beneath the surface. Without factoring in sacks — Minnesota allowed 41 — the figures would be reversed.)
At Miami in 2011-12, the ratio was about the same: 30.5 and 34.3.
At UCLA in 2017, the Bruins had the second-fewest rushing attempts per game in the Pac-12 (30.5) and the second-most passing attempts (41.2). Adjusted for sacks, those numbers are 28.2 and 43.5. But remember: UCLA had quarterback Josh Rosen, who would become the 10th pick in the 2018 draft.
Arizona doesn’t have a Josh Rosen.
Arizona has yet to find its starting quarterback, an ongoing source of consternation. Yet the Wildcats, after adjusting for sacks, are averaging 45 pass attempts and only 24 rushing attempts through three games.
The most obvious explanation is that Arizona has been behind so early and often that Fisch has been forced to abandon the run.
“I feel like the first two games, we got into situations where we’re down a couple scores, and that’s going to skew those stats a little bit,” offensive coordinator Brennan Carroll said. “We’d love to be balanced. We’ve got to be better in the first halves so that we can stay that way.”
There’s definitely some merit to that argument. Arizona never held the lead against BYU or San Diego State. The Wildcats trailed the Cougars 21-3 midway through the third quarter and were down 35-7 to the Aztecs at halftime.
Counterpoint: Fisch wasn’t stubborn enough with the run game — which can be a struggling quarterback’s best friend — when those games were still within reach.
Running back Michael Wiley carried eight times in the first quarter against BYU. Quarterbacks Gunner Cruz and Will Plummer combined to throw seven passes.
In the second quarter — when it was a one-score game until 2:06 remained in the half — running backs carried only four times, while Cruz and Plummer had 15 pass attempts.
Arizona got the ball to start the third quarter down 14-3. Wiley rushed for 12 and 6 yards on the first two plays. A pass to Wiley gained 11 yards and a first down. The next four plays: incomplete, incomplete, sack, punt. BYU then scored to make it 21-3.
San Diego State jumped to a 21-0 advantage less than eight minutes into the game. But Arizona had the ball down 21-7 in the first quarter. When the Aztecs made it 28-7, there were still more than 12 minutes to play in the first half.
Arizona had seven rushing attempts in the first quarter vs. SDSU (five by running backs) and seven pass attempts. In the second quarter, the sack-adjusted numbers were two and eight.
The ratio in the NAU game makes the least sense. After adjusting for sacks, Arizona had 28 pass attempts and 12 rushing attempts in the first half. The Wildcats had the lead for most of it.
Fisch leaned on the run game in the third quarter, when Arizona had 10 rushes and five pass attempts. Drake Anderson and Jalen John combined for 62 yards on nine carries, but none of it led to a score.
Arizona finished with 106 net rushing yards vs. NAU. The last time they met, in 2019, Arizona had 431.
One could argue the Wildcats shouldn’t run because they aren’t very good at it. After adjusting for sacks, they’re averaging 4.5 yards per attempt — about a yard lower than the previous three seasons.
Counterpoint: Rushing can have a cumulative effect. The more you do it, the better chance you have to wear down the opposition.
It also can aid a struggling offensive line. And you’re tapping into a team strength — a deep corps of backs.
UA running backs are averaging 18.3 rushing attempts per game. That figure was no lower than 23.8 in any of the previous nine seasons.
Fisch has stressed patience regarding Arizona’s rebuild. He could use a bit more as a play-caller.