Arizona Wildcats receivers catch on in quest to become the Pac-12’s best
On the first drive of the game against Colorado, Arizona QB Jayden de Laura threw a quick backwards pass to freshman WR Tetairoa McMillan. McMillan looked down the field on the trick play to throw to an open receiver, but could not find anyone, so he ran to the other side of the backfield, looking like he was going to turn downfield, but then he checked down a pass to de Laura, who made a nice catch along the sideline for an 11-yard gain.
“I was like, ‘Throw me the ball, throw me the ball,’ and I thought he was gonna run, but he ended up throwing it to me,” de Laura said postgame. “And you know me, with the best hands on the team, I’m not dropping that.”
The player with the self-proclaimed “best hands on the team“ was the only Wildcat who caught a pass without a touchdown against the Buffaloes. De Laura ended the 43-20 win on 33-46 completions with 484 passing yards and tied the school record with six touchdown passes, both career highs for the sophomore in his first season with the Wildcats (3-2, 1-1 Pac-12), who face No. 12 Oregon this Saturday.
“The more time he spends in our system, the better he’s going to be,” coach Jedd Fisch said of de Laura. “And he has all the gifts physically, so it’s now a matter of just continuing to improve in the system.”
It was a party in the end zone all night for the Wildcats’ receiving group, as all of the team’s touchdowns came through the air. Jacob Cowing crossed the goal line for the fifth consecutive game, Dorian Singer scored his first-ever touchdown, tight end Tanner McLachlan scored his first in a Wildcat uniform, McMillan caught one on a flea-flicker and running back Michael Wiley tacked on the other two scores.
“I felt like everything was working,” de Laura said. “All the receivers, just catching the ball. And I was really happy with the O-line, their blocking and the run after catch (by the receivers). That was something that really helped us out this week.”
In addition to the touchdowns, the Wildcats’ outside receivers Singer and McMillan each made incredible one-handed catches (Singer’s second straight game with one) and McLachlan had a hurdle, all in the first half for Arizona. Everyone that talked in the press conferences said they weren’t surprised by these terrific plays because it’s a regular occurrence in practice.
USC transfer linebacker Hunter Echols, who had 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble against the Buffaloes, gave the receivers the ultimate compliment after the team’s first Pac-12 win.
“For me, (at USC) I’ve seen Amon-Ra St. Brown, Tyler Vaughns, Michael Pittman and Drake London right, all NFL guys, this is the closest thing of a receiver core as I’ve seen to that,” Echols said. “T-Mac (McMillan) is a beast and y’all seen it out there today, Dorian Singer’s a beast, (No. 2) is a beast, Jacob Cowing. We even got more guys like, they’re incredible. They’re pretty much like a deep group, man. It’s hard to guard them guys at practice, and you see it’s hard to guard them in the game as well.”
Despite a loss to Cal the week prior, Singer and Cowing each had over 100 receiving yards, helping de Laura set a then-career high in passing yardage with 401. The two reached the feat again versus Colorado with Cowing posting 12 receptions and 180 yards (148 came after the catch) and Singer having 9 catches for 163 yards (122 yards were in the first half) to go along with their touchdowns.
The Wildcats gained over 500 yards of total offense against Cal for the first time under Fisch, and they didn’t skip a beat against Colorado, accumulating 673 net yards.
“The offense was clicking tonight, there’s no question about it,” Fisch said. “The offense never flinched, it was a first-and-goal on the three, and we didn’t get in and easily could have gotten stressed. Or (we) missed a field goal at the end of the half, could have gotten stressed, but I felt like the offense was very confident (throughout the game).”
It was even more of a special night for the elusive and speedy Cowing, who amassed over 3,000 receiving yards for his career in the first quarter, and he came to his press conference bearing the milestone ball.
“The reason why I brought this in here is something because I was just talking to my family and everything like that,” Cowing said. “I wanted to kind of share that moment with my mom. I’ve been talking to her since I was maybe like eight, nine years old, that this is something I wanted to do at the U of A. So now that I’m here, I did that … We laughed, we cried a little bit and just shared that special moment together.”
By having a touchdown in each of the Wildcats’ five games this season, the junior transfer from UTEP also tied the Pac-12 record of five consecutive games with a touchdown from scrimmage in a player’s first season with a team and currently has at least one reception in 37 straight games.
Cowing is making a case for being among the top slot receivers in the country. He now ranks first in the Pac-12 in receiving yards this season (566), touchdowns (7) and receptions (40), whereas Singer ranks second in receiving yards (450) and receptions (32).
Singer, a former walk-on from Pinnacle who was granted a scholarship after his 2021 freshman campaign, has made impressive and memorable catches throughout his entire time at Arizona. He finally got a touchdown Saturday after a drought that seemed like forever.
“We thought that there was like kryptonite there for a while with the end zone. So it’s nice that we got through that barrier,” Fisch said. “He practices every single day, so many reps. And he just, no matter if he’s beat up or sore or hurt or whatever it might be, he’s gonna fight through it. And he does such a tremendous job of just trying to get better every week.”
McMillan (T-Mac) was named the Pac-12 Freshman of the Week for his performance against Colorado (five catches for 90 yards and one TD). The 6-foot-5 native of Hawaii was the Wildcats’ highest-touted recruit in the Fisch era, and he lines up alongside Cowing and Singer as a more-than-capable receiver. He now has 16 catches for 290 yards and three TDs on the year. His one-handed catch in the first half was arguably the best play of the game.
“I think when he first got here, his first catch ever at Arizona practice was a one-handed catch on the sideline,” Echols said.
Added safety Christian Young, who goes up against McMillan frequently in practice: “He is a beast. He’s a one-of-a-kind talent. And so you know, I expect things like that from T-Mac.”
The game against Oregon will mean a little more to McMillan, as he flipped his commitment in December from the Ducks to the Wildcats at the last moment amidst the Oregon coaching changes. He said the decision came down to trust and relationships he had built within the Wildcats program. “As far as I’m concerned, I’m still happy with my decision,” he added.
McMillan was a part of the two big trick plays against Colorado that added to the Wildcats’ impressive highlight reel of the game, something that Fisch says they call based on certain coverages.
“I think that there’s always a place for an opportunity to take a shot at one of those weekly, bi-weekly, something to that effect,” Fisch said. “But, you know, they don’t always work, and they’re just another play.”
McLachlan, the other T-Mac on the team, who went through a long journey of recovering from an ACL tear and then transferring to Arizona and earning a scholarship before the Wildcats’ first game, shed a tackle to get his first Wildcat touchdown in the second quarter. His only catches of the game were the TD and the play where he hurdled a defender. The 6-foot-5 junior adds yet another level of versatility to the receiving group.
“It’s gonna be hard for a linebacker to run with him, especially with Tanner’s football IQ,” de Laura said. “Knowing how to get open, knowing how to use his body and when he got to go up and get it, and his hurdle, knowing that, okay, I need to protect my knees. But yeah, I feel like it gives defenses a lot of problems, especially when the running backs are catching and the O-line is doing a heck of a job.”
Wiley, now in his fourth season with Arizona, was the silent assassin of the passing attack against Colorado, as de Laura was able to find the running back when he got open on checkdowns. In addition to his first two receiving touchdowns of the season, Wiley had five catches for 34 yards and 77 rushing yards against the Buffaloes.
“I always tell him that I always forget to give him a game ball in the locker room … so I always just say, ‘Wiley will get a game ball on Monday,’” Fisch said of the junior who has put together an impressive stretch dating back to last season with 10 touchdowns from scrimmage in as many games.
“Mike Wiley is just a ballplayer so there’s some things that Mike does sometimes that I’m like, ‘Hey, what just happened there?’ And he’s like, ‘Well, I saw this or I saw that,’ and that’s what really good players can do,” Fisch added.
Moving forward, Wildcat fans will also be seeing more of another weapon, freshman Keyan Burnett, who is 6-foot-6 and 238 pounds. Despite not having a catch against Colorado, he is going to be playing a bigger role at the tight end position after Alex Lines, who played in several games with the Wildcats last season and sparingly this year, left the program for unspecified reasons before the Colorado game, Fisch confirmed.
“He’s an incoming freshman, so I think, you know, he just has a lot of growth that he has to, kind of go through as the years go on,” Cowing said of Burnett. “He’s a freak athlete. I mean, just look at his size … he’d be catching footballs one hand almost every day at practice. He does some just spectacular stuff.”
De Laura added that he expects Burnett to grow into the system fast and is going to take it upon himself to instill confidence into his new target.
The team is excited about their receiving core moving forward this season and beyond, as they continue to expect big performances from them.
“They’re really young, and as of now, I think everybody can come back next year,” de Laura said, smiling and hinting to Cowing. “So we’ll see how that works out.”
On Sunday, the day after the game versus Arizona, Colorado parted ways with their head coach and defensive coordinator after an 0-5 start.
“It’s an unfortunate part of the business,” Fisch said of the recent coaching changes across college football. “I don’t like it for anybody, and I think it’s a sad day when coaches get let go.”
Arizona, which some sportsbooks predicted would only win three games this season, now encounters the toughest part of its schedule with five consecutive games against currently-ranked Pac-12 teams.
Even with the impressive performances Cowing has had already, Fisch has the biggest expectations for his top receiver heading into this weekend’s game.
“We need Jacob to have his best game (against Oregon). And we know that with these (Oregon) defenders, they’re going to be physical, they’re going to be very well coached, and are tough,” Fisch said. “And for Jacob in this game, it’s going to be a great challenge.”