Winning Wildcat Football

A 9-3 season guaranteed the ’Cats a trip to the Alamo Bowl.

Winter 2024
A football player in red throws a ball on a green field

Redshirt freshman Noah Fifita became Arizona's starting quarterback midway through the 2023 season.

Arizona Athletics

On Nov. 27, 2021, Arizona football coach Jedd Fisch addressed reporters in a white, short-sleeved windbreaker, fumbling with his navy visor on the table in front of him. His team had just dragged to the finish of a one-win season — his first as Arizona’s head coach — punctuated by a 38-15 loss to Arizona State in the Territorial Cup. Fisch said that day that, despite the Wildcats’ paltry record, he was “excited beyond belief” for where the program was headed, and he knew they would soon become a “very, very good football team.” 

Senior defensive lineman Bill Norton

Senior defensive lineman Bill Norton

Arizona Athletics

The program’s turnaround since then — capped by a 38-24 win over Oklahoma in the Alamo Bowl — has been nothing short of remarkable. The Wildcats turned in a 10-3 record this season, including five wins over top-25 teams, appearing in their first bowl game since 2017 and rocketing Fisch into the conversation for college football’s Coach of the Year award. 

The first two weeks of the season featured games against Northern Arizona and Mississippi State, teams the Wildcats lost to in 2021 and 2022, respectively. Fisch says this year’s rematches — a comfortable win over NAU and an overtime loss at Mississippi State — showed him a “totally different team” than the ones he coached his first two seasons in Tucson. 

Still, Fisch did not know just how massive of a leap the program was about to take. 

“I thought that we were going to build it up in Year 3,” he says. “I didn't know how high we could go.” 

In Week 4 of the season, Arizona lost its starting quarterback, Jayden de Laura, to an ankle injury against Stanford. Redshirt freshman Noah Fifita stepped in and played a poised fourth quarter, guiding the Wildcats to a 21-20 win in Palo Alto. 

Football players engage with one another in front of packed stadium

Freshman offensive lineman Raymond Pulido, senior running back Michael Wiley and redshirt freshman offensive lineman Wendell Mo

Arizona Athletics

In Weeks 5 and 6, with Fifita still under center, the Wildcats put the college football world on notice with a one-touchdown loss to No. 7 Washington and a triple-overtime loss at No. 9 Southern California. The Wildcats went into both games as heavy underdogs but came out the other side proving they could hang with anyone. 

Fifita held on to the starting job the rest of the season, taking the team on a six-win run post-USC. Fifita’s pièce de résistance came in the Wildcats’ regular-season finale, a 59-23 win over ASU, when he set Arizona’s single-game passing record with 527 yards and five passing touchdowns. His go-to target and former high school teammate, sophomore receiver Tetairoa McMillan, set the Territorial Cup record with 266 yards receiving, including a touchdown. 

“Any time a freshman or redshirt freshman can step in and not miss a beat is surprising, a little bit, just because of [a lack of] experience and opportunity,” Fisch says. “But what isn't surprising is, everything [Fifita] did in high school is what he's doing now. This was exactly the same type of player as he was when we recruited him two years ago. He was in control. He was confident. He kept his emotions in check.” 

Fans celebrate on the field

With a promising young quarterback and a likely contract extension for Fisch, the foundation has been laid in the program’s rebuild. Now, Fisch and his staff enter a critical window to keep the momentum going. The offseason will revolve around the coaching staff signing a new class of recruits and players hitting the weight room. 

The final piece of the puzzle relies on the fans. Fisch says financial support through the Desert Takeover Football Collective is a “huge part” of creating long-term success. He also calls for a packed Arizona Stadium on game days, especially as Arizona joins the Big 12 Conference next season. 

“We want the Big 12 to see the University of Arizona as the hardest place to play, and you don't get a second chance to make a first impression,” he says.

The web version of this story was updated to include the Wildcats’ Alamo Bowl victory on Dec. 28, which came following the magazine’s deadline for print.

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