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Opponent Defense Preview: Arizona

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A look at an Arizona defense that, unlike years past, doesn’t totally suck.

Texas Tech v Arizona Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Personnel and What to Expect

First things first about Arizona’s defense: shockingly, they aren’t total ass this year. Or, at least, I don’t think they are. But also, wait... maybe they are? No, pretty sure they’re fine.

Statistically, they’re giving up 29.3 points per game (that’s .1 point per game more than Stanford, for those counting), but without their first two games of giving up 45 and 38 points, that drops drastically to 20.3. But that slate wasn’t exactly against consistent offensive powerhouses: Texas Tech (usually high-power, but not infrequent crappers of the bed), Colorado (pretty balanced), and UCLA (haha).

Overall, you’re likely to see a lot of 3-3-5 but also — maybe this is the SEC influence of Kevin Sumlin — more 3-4 and other non-nickel formations than I was expecting going into my research. Particularly against two tight end sets, a 4-3 or 3-4 shows up pretty frequently, all things considered.

The line is manned by a rotation of Trevon Mason, Myles Tapusoa, Mykee Irving, and Finton Connolly. The former has had a couple stand out plays, including impressive breaks through the line against Colorado within the five yard line, but for the most part there doesn’t seem to be one guy that’s The Guy. While that does sound nice from an offensive perspective, there also doesn’t appear to be one guy that’s a weak link, either. When they go with full defensive ends, the main names will be the increasingly productive “STUD” player Jalen Harris, plus JB Brown, Kylan Wilborn, and Justin Belknap.

In the pass rush, the front line doesn’t dominate but typically generates enough pressure to let the rest of the defense do their job pretty well. That being said, typically their effect is simply to cause quarterbacks to make hurried or off-balance throws rather than actual sacks — against FBS opponents Hawaii, Texas Tech, UCLA, and Colorado, the Wildcats have produced only three sacks, with zero against Colorado and Texas Tech.

Furthermore, you’ll likely see quite a few three-man pressures, but overall Arizona uses multiple tactics to generate pressure and often varies it up between three and five pass rushers.

This unit’s success in the run is also pretty interesting. They seem to have difficulty with more powerful runners — the loss of Richard Newton stings even more — but typically set the edge quite well; while researching, I saw enough runs outside the tackles get busted for three, four, five yard losses that it feels reasonable to call it a “pattern.” Which, in that way, it feels like their most valuable assets in the run are their linebackers and their sideline-to-sideline ability. Conversely, the line is fine but more of a liability against running plays when compared to their adept pass rushing.

Behind them, the linebackers’ strengths are that which I just mentioned in the run. They’re led by the ever-present Colin Schooler in the middle, who can be found at or near the top of their tackles list any given game and leads the team in that category with 40. Tony Fields will also usually make significant statistical impacts, as does his ostensible back-up in the two deeps, Anthony Pandy. Tristan Cooper is the other starting linebacker, and if there’s one guy in this unit that’s less statistically consistent, it would be him.

These guys in general are pretty versatile when it comes to sending pressure from different directions or dropping into coverage among their success in stopping runs outside the tackles. That being said, they are a big part of Arizona’s aforementioned trouble with more powerful ball-carriers, with some significant misses standing out especially versus UCLA and Colorado. Overall, though, this unit, just like much of Arizona’s defense, does look like an upgrade over their play when RichRod was the coach.

In the secondary, they mix and match man and zone coverage but, since I have to use the eye test to determine this without having the excessive time on my hands to actually game chart, I’d estimate there’s quite a bit more zone in general.

They were particularly havoc-wreaking against Texas Tech, with two interceptions in the first quarter, although both of those throws were the kind where you’re yelling at Tech quarterback Alan Bowman, “Don’t throw that ball you idiot!” so, who knows who to credit there. Actually, we do know who to credit there, and in both cases it was the pass rush — although both interceptions showcased good coordination and body control by Arizona’s defensive backs. (Sidenote: that game saw four turnovers between the two in the first quarter alone. Ew.)

In general, these backs don’t have the intimidation factor and, like the linebackers in front of them, also have trouble with more powerful ball-carriers — but also just like the rest of the defense, they’re not a total cluster like they have been. Despite their troubles with tackling those kind of runners, overall they do an improved job of preventing plays from turning explosive.

Both safeties tend to get in on the action, with Christian Young causing two fumbles this year and his counterpart, Scottie Young (not related), leading the secondary with 22 tackles. Then on corners, both Jace Whittaker and Lorenzo Burns have three interceptions each.

Overall, this defense doesn’t have any one thing that stands out as a massive strength or weakness, other than perhaps tackling powerful runners for the latter category and tackling lateral runners for the former. They’re still not super great, but they’re definitely improved enough to not leave their offense hanging.

Bottom Line

The first thing that I would normally write in this is “Give the ball to Richard Newton,” but, with him missing, the next best thing feels like it would be allowing Cade Otton to find soft spots in the zone and dump it off to him. Should Petersen and Hamdan utilize Otton’s size and power, you can expect to see more of him dragging weaker human beings for 10 yard gains after the catch.

Otherwise, Salvon Ahmed and Sean McGrew can still have decent games between the tackles and I expect to see that — they’re just, unfortunately, not so tailor-made to take down this defense.

Further, in the run game, it did look to me like there were moments of Arizona’s defense looking notably weaker later in the game; preparing for that by forcing them to stop the run early on could pay dividends later on. Ugh, it really stinks that Newton’s injured.

Then when it comes to passing, there isn’t one gaping weakness, other than A) the offensive line needs to actually do their job this week and B) passes behind the line of scrimmage, screens, etc. probably won’t be that successful, given the Wildcats’ linebackers’ speed to the outside. This sentence would maybe look different if Andre Baccellia and Aaron Fuller were tougher runners to tackle but, seeing as they are exactly the opposite of that, there’s likely little to be gained by an over-reliance on those throws.

The last thing is that Jacob Eason, if under pressure, really shouldn’t force it. That’s true against everyone, but here it feels especially true given that he should pretty easily be able to protect from interceptions otherwise.

That’s it for this week’s opponent. Do good things, don’t do bad things, and bow down to Washington.