Arizona Rich Rodriguez has relied on an effective offense to win games in his first year in the Pac-12, but after a hot 3-0 start, the Wildcats are looking to stop a three-game conference skid that has left the team with a .500 record. - Scott Olmos-US PRESSWIRE
Each week, we take a look at the various fronts of Washington's upcoming opponent. Today, we look at the defense of the Arizona Wildcats.
Let's get something out of the way: Arizona's defense is bad. As in, "2011 Washington Huskies" bad. They're so ineffective, in fact, that I chose to use a photo of head coach Rich Rodriguez to headline this article, because I couldn't find a photo of a single defensive highlight from the team in 2012. When you're talking about a squad that ranks 113th in the nation in total defense, though, that's hardly a surprise.
It's for that reason that Saturday's game against Arizona presents Washington with its best opportunity yet to kick its unexpectedly languishing offense into gear, because for the first time since the infamous 2011 Alamo Bowl (with the exception of non-conference games against San Diego State and Portland State), the Dawgs will face a defense that isn't ranked among the nation's elite. The Wildcats employ an unconventional 3-3-5 defense, which is a formation that the Huskies have already seen thanks to the aforementioned game against the Aztecs. It's an experience that may prove invaluable to a Washington squad that probably can't afford to fall behind on the road to a potent Arizona offense if it hopes to leave Tucson with a win for the first time since 2006.
Defensive Line: Even taking into account that Arizona's depth chart lists just three linemen, this has got to be one of the most inexperienced units that the Washington offense has faced this year, as DE Dominique Austin and DTs Sione Tuihalamaka and Dan Pettinato had a combined 17 career starts coming into the 2012 season. A lack of backfield penetration is perhaps this unit's biggest problem, as the starters combine for a pitiful 1.5 tackles for loss and 0.5 sacks. Of course, a 3-3-5 defense is predicated upon bringing outside pressure from linebackers and defensive backs from unexpected angles, so UW's patchwork offensive line can hardly think that this matchup will be a walk in the park. Still, on paper, there's plenty of reason to think that Bishop Sankey could have a career day against this defensive front.
Linebacker: Coming into the 2012 season, this unit looked like it could have been a real strength for the Cats, as they welcomed graduate transfer and projected starter Brian Wagner from the University of Akron, whose 147 total tackles in 2011 ranked fourth in the nation. However, Wagner decided to give up football prior to the start of the season, depriving them of a player who had all-conference potential. Arizona has responded by starting Marquis Flowers, Jake Fischer and the wonderfully named Sir Thomas Jackson at the Sam, Mike and Will positions, respectively. Fischer and Flowers lead the team in tackles, but no one in this unit compares to players the Huskies have faced in recent weeks like Dion Bailey or Kiko Alonso. Again, the Dawgs can't afford to take anything for granted, but this looks to be a fairly forgiving matchup for the Dawgs.
Defensive Backs: Normally I separate this section into cornerbacks and safeties, but with Arizona, it can be difficult to draw a line between the responsibilities that each unit has. As noted above, the Wildcat's base package of five defenders relies on throwing the opposing offense into a state of confusion and uncertainty. True sophomore Tra'Mayne Bondurant has been the biggest beneficiary of this philosophical change from the Cats' previous scheme, as he's made a team-leading 10.5 tackles in opponent backfields. Defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel will likely assign redshirt sophomore cornerback Jonathan McKnight to cover Kasen Williams, as he's shown himself to be the team's best player at defending the pass. However, this squad is weighed down by the albatross of being the 118th-ranked team against opponent passing attacks, giving up an average 297 yards through the air so far. If Keith Price is going to finally have his big passing breakout of 2012 with ASJ or Williams against an FBS opponent, Saturday presents his best opportunity to do so yet.