If you were to look at Arizona's defensive performances this year in isolation of any context, you could be forgiven for thinking that a certain team from the SEC in 2012 had relocated from Tuscaloosa to Tucson. Through three games this year, Arizona ranks third nationally in scoring defense, 31st in rushing defense, 41st in passing defense, 26th in total defense and first in opponent red zone attempts. Those statistics are especially remarkable, considering that Arizona ranked 104th, 107th, 121st, 122nd and 36th in those respective categories in 2012.
Astronomical improvement like that begs many questions, the foremost of which is: What happened? Did RichRod convince Bill Belichick to leave the Patriots to become his new defensive coordinator? Did Arizona's defenders discover how to attain Neo-levels of agility? What's the secret to their success in Tucson?
The answer is simply that Arizona has played the nation's 155th-most difficult schedule thus far. Arizona's high rankings are the product of facing three of the weakest opponents imaginable thus far in Northern Arizona, Nevada-Las Vegas and Texas-San Antonio, and one can only assume that Washington's high-powered offense will strain Arizona's defense in ways that haven't even been approached at this point in the season. Arizona rightly views this game as setting the barometer for the season, and their defense will be that much more motivated to give UW's offense its first real challenge of the year.
Arizona uses the 3-3-5 as its base defensive scheme, which puts the onus on its defensive backs and linebackers to cover ground and take away the ability of its opponents to move the ball laterally. Obviously, this could pose some issues for Washington, which has utilized various screen passes to great effect this season by quickly getting the football to Jaydon Mickens, John Ross and Bishop Sankey, and allowing them to make moves in space. On the defensive line, Reggie Gilbert is an imposing presence. At 6-4, 261 lbs., he brings good size to the position and has a knack for sniffing out ball carriers in the backfield. In 2012, he logged 19 total tackles, including 6.0 for loss and 3.5 sacks; through three games this season, he's already accumulated one of each, in addition to forcing a fumble. He's joined by fellow end Sione Tuihalamaka and nose tackle Tevin Hood, both seniors with at least a season of playing experience under their belts.
Any conversation about the Wildcats' second level begins with Marquis Flowers, who last year led the team in tackles for loss (13.0), sacks (5.0), fumbles forced (3.0, sharing the lead with two other players) and interceptions (2, sharing the lead with one other player). He appears to be up to his old tricks, already totaling 3.0 tackles for loss this season. The Husky offensive line will face one of their biggest tests yet in keeping him from reaching Bishop Sankey and Keith Price, the latter of whom is a good friend of the Wildcat linebacker—the two have apparently already enjoyed some good-natured ribbing in the lead-up to Saturday's game. Flowers is flanked on the strong side by either Scooby Wright or Keoni Bush-Loo, and in the middle by Jake Fischer, who is no slouch himself: Last year, he accounted for a team-high 119 tackles.
The defensive backfield is headlined by Tra'Mayne Bondurant at the "Spur" position. Bondurant has already made 19 tackles this year and three interceptions, returning two of them for touchdowns. After being named a second-team freshman All American in 2011, he has shown an ability to continuously upgrade his game, having earned 3.0 tackles for loss and 1.0 sacks through just three games in 2013. If Keith Price's streak of 86 consecutive pass attempts without an interception comes to a close on Saturday, there's a good chance that it will be because one of his passes finds its way into Bondurant's hands. His fellow starting defensive backs are safeties Jared Tevis and Jourdon Grandon, and cornerbacks Jonathan McKnight and Shaquille Richardson.
As always, thanks to College Football Statistics, ESPN and USA Today's College Football Injury Report for the relevant data that went into this article. You can follow me on Twitter by clicking below.