Arizona quarterback Gunner Cruz moves out of the pocket to find room to throw against BYU in the second quarter of the Vegas Kickoff Classic on Sept. 4. Cruz is back as the Wildcats' starting quarterback following an injury to Jordan McCloud.

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The last time Arizona defeated Colorado — also the last time the Wildcats won a game — wasn’t much different than the previous two meetings.

Quarterback Khalil Tate put the Cats on his back and carried them to victory.

For Arizona to end a 17-game losing streak that began the week after that 35-30 win on Oct. 5, 2019, the opposite must occur. The Wildcats must provide their quarterback with support in a variety of ways so he isn’t overburdened.

That quarterback is Gunner Cruz, who returns to the starting lineup on Saturday against the Buffaloes after an unfortunate turn of events. Arizona appeared to have found its starter in Jordan McCloud, who helped the Wildcats move the ball in a manner they hadn’t previously. But McCloud suffered season-ending knee and ankle injuries in the fourth quarter of last week’s game against UCLA.

UA coach Jedd Fisch turned back to Cruz, who started the first two games. Those performances couldn’t have been more different. Cruz passed for 336 yards in the opener vs. BYU. He totaled only 70 against San Diego State before being pulled in the third quarter.

Whether Cruz has improved since then remains to be seen. What’s clear is that Arizona needs to continue to improve in certain areas to take pressure off the third-year freshman.

Fisch put it this way: “Gunner hopefully will step up. And with that, the rest of our team has to step up.”

Here are five ways the Wildcats — both coaches and players — can help their quarterback succeed:

1. Continue to emphasize the run

In the first three games — including Cruz’s two starts — Arizona averaged 24 rushing attempts and 45 passing attempts (after adjusting for sacks). In the past two games, the Wildcats averaged 45.5 rushing attempts and 38.5 passing attempts.

Both Fisch and offensive coordinator Brennan Carroll have discussed the importance of having better balance. The Cats converted third downs at a considerably higher rate in the last two games (43.3%) than in the first three (20%), in part because they created more of what Carroll referred to as “third-and-manageables.”

Game flow had a lot to do with the imbalance of the first two games, in which the run-pass ratio was 23.5 to 46. As Fisch noted, by the time Cruz and the offense took their seventh snap against SDSU, the Aztecs led 21-0.

“If we can play a more balanced football game, run the football better than we did against those two teams, that would help us for sure,” Fisch said.


Arizona running back Drake Anderson gets swarmed behind the line of scrimmage by San Diego State defenders in the UA's Week 2 loss. The Wildcats must run the ball more effectively if they hope to snap the nation's longest losing streak.

2. Contain Colorado’s run game

The Buffaloes have one of the least productive passing attacks in the nation. They barely crack triple digits in yards per game.

But Colorado is capable of running the ball, and no one knows that better than Arizona. Loss No. 11 during the streak featured a breakout performance by Jarek Broussard, who rushed for 301 yards in a 24-13 come-from-behind CU victory last year.

Although the Buffaloes might have some wrinkles in store after a bye, the Wildcats, for the most part, know what’s coming.

“They have the Pac-12 (Offensive) Player of the Year from last year at running back, they ran for 407 yards against Arizona a year ago and we just let up 300 yards rushing,” Fisch said. “So I would assume that they're going to try to go back to giving the ball to Broussard and give him a chance.”

If the Wildcats can keep Broussard in the 100-yard range, the Buffs likely will struggle to score. (They average a league-low 13.8 points per game.) If that happens, Fisch can stick with his offensive game plan.

3. Capitalize on red-zone opportunities

These stats might make your head hurt. They’ve caused Fisch considerable consternation.

Arizona averages more offensive plays per game (75.0) than any team in the Pac-12. Yet the Wildcats rank 11th in scoring (16.8 ppg).

The primary cause is inefficiency in the red zone. Arizona has only five touchdowns in 18 trips inside the 20-yard line. The Wildcats’ TD rate of 27.8% ranks last in the conference.

There’s plenty of blame to be assigned.

“It hasn't been one position,” Carroll said. “It hasn’t been one guy. It hasn't been any one particular play.”

Fisch said the offense practiced red-zone plays Wednesday, something it doesn’t usually do. About 80% of the offense’s time was spent in the red zone Thursday.

“We'll continue to try to find ways to improve,” Fisch said. “Those four-point plays” — the difference between a touchdown and a field goal — “are critical in a game. Huge.”

4. Cut down on penalties

Penalties undermined Arizona in the red zone against UCLA. They prolonged drives for the Bruins. The Wildcats were flagged a season-high 12 times.

Carroll praised the offensive line for limiting negative runs and enabling Arizona to stay “on schedule” vs. UCLA. Penalties — especially false starts — can get an offense off schedule. The Wildcats have enough problems without having to gain an extra 5 (or 10) yards to convert a first down.

Limiting those miscues undoubtedly was a prominent topic of conversation at the Lowell-Stevens Football Facility this week. Arizona has averaged nine penalties over the past four games. That’s about double what most coaches would consider acceptable.

Fisch often says, “You have to learn how not to lose before you can learn to win.” Reducing penalties falls under that umbrella.

5. Simplify the game

This falls mainly on Fisch, the Wildcats’ offensive architect and play-caller.

While discussing the area of Cruz’s game that seems to be holding him back — his habit of holding the ball too long — Fisch talked about what Cruz is seeing when he scans the field.

In short: He’s seeing too much.

“They always say, ‘See a little, see a lot; see a lot, see nothing,’” Fisch said. “If you start trying to see everything, it just all kind of runs together.”

The coaches have told Cruz that reading two-thirds of the field is “plenty,” Fisch said. So don’t be surprised if Fisch draws up some plays that give Cruz easy reads and completions, especially early in the game.

The overarching goal, Fisch said repeatedly, is to help Cruz feel as confident and comfortable as possible. If his coaches and teammates do their jobs, it’ll be a lot easier for Cruz to do his.

Contact sports reporter Michael Lev at 573-4148 or mlev@tucson.com. On Twitter @michaeljlev 

This article originally ran on tucson.com.

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