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Opponent Defense Preview: Arizona Wildcats


Exotic Longhairs, kittens Photo by Tollkühn/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Not doing an intro, and when you get to the bottom of this 20 minutes from now, you’ll understand why:

Personnel and What to Expect

Now that Arizona’s down to their, like, 18th quarterback, half the battle with their defense is simply that their offense doooooesn’t exactly do them any favors. If you think Washington’s offense has been crap, then thank whichever deity you’re in good standing with that you’re not in Tucson — the Wildcats haven’t once this season scored 20 or more points. Holy sharts.

In fact, when you check it out a bit, Arizona’s defense is probably taking a fair amount more blame for this terrible no good very bad season than they deserve; they’ve only given up 40+ points once against Oregon and have otherwise given up 34, 34, 38, and 24 points against other FBS teams — not great scoring defense, but certainly not the level that makes you want to wash your eye sockets out with Tide. It’s actually kind of impressive considering their offense hasn’t been sustaining drives, giving opponents’ offenses have plenty of possession time.

And, actually, that’s not how many points their defense gave up.

Many of those points didn’t actually come against Arizona’s defense, or came after turnovers from their offense where opponents only had to complete a couple plays to score: Against Colorado, for example, they threw a pick six right after getting the ball back from Colorado returning one of their punts for a touchdown. Arizona’s defense only actually gave up 20 points — six out of Colorado’s 10 full possessions ended in a punt, turnover on downs, or the end of the half.

Against Oregon it was a similar story: On the Wildcats’ very first play of their first possession, their quarterback threw an interception. Ironically given the narrative around Arizona’s defense, in this scenario they actually held the Ducks to a field goal despite the fact they would’ve only had to drive 25 yards for a touchdown. Along with that interception, the Arizona offense also gave up one pick six. So, really, the defense only gave up 34 points — 31 if you want to be generous with their stop of that game-beginning interception — plus picked up a safety. All this despite Arizona’s offense having eight of their 11 full possessions ending in an interception, interception returned for touchdown, punt, or missed field goal/turnover on downs.

That game exemplified a back-and-forth quality of the Arizona defense where, on any given drive, they’re better than given credit for oooor they give up long, sustained drives punctuated by big chunk plays; Oregon’s six scoring drives (four of which were touchdowns) went for 75, 22, 75, 80, 50, and 59 yards.

Similarly, versus UCLA, all four of the Bruins’ touchdowns were drives of longer than 65 yards. Ironically, despite Arizona fumbling twice well in their own territory, UCLA only got three points from those turnovers and in one instance moved backwards and had to punt. And again, a long punt return for UCLA to the red zone resulted in only three points.

This defense is kind of paradoxical — they seem to do their best when they’re put in the worst situations. Maybe it’s mental, maybe it’s just because it’s tighter space for their opponents, but they’ll give up an 80 yard drive only to then stand firm after their own offense screws them over with a fumble in their own red zone.

The eye test starts explaining these situations better. For starters, when you watch them it’s clear that their pass defense is actually alright — in some instances, some might even say “good” — it’s just a matter of consistently hitting that standard. Statistically, that’s backed up. DTR threw for less than 50% completion and only 88 yards. Anthony Brown also hit less than 50% and just matched the 200 yardage mark. Colorado’s Brendon Lewis threw for 248 yards on only 19 attempts (and 12 completions). In fact, no opposing quarterback has reached 300 yards passing against Arizona this year. And yet here they are, not doin’ so hot in the year of our lord, 2021.

Sound familiar?

On the other side of that coin: Colorado, 117 rushing yards (okay, not terrible), Oregon 187 including some huge chunk runs from Travis Dye, BYU 161, San Diego State 271, UCLA 329...

I mean... really familiar.

Up front exemplifies this, as the defensive line and outside linebackers look much better against the pass than run. They’re usually in a 2-4-5 or sometimes 3-3-5 and an occasional non-nickel, but always seem to get more push against the pass regardless of personnel. It’s not like opposing quarterbacks are constantly under duress, but the front four do a pretty good job of slowly minimizing the pocket and forcing him to get the ball out without leisurely waiting around for a guy to get open.

That quality of the defensive line is convenient if you’re a Wildcats fan seeing as they play more man coverage than you’d expect from a team not known for having accumulated a lot of secondary talent. That was actually another thing that stood out to me: Their man defense isn’t dominant or anything, but it’s better than you’d expect by a longshot (although Oregon had a nice mesh concept to counter this where the linebacker covering Travis Dye got picked into oblivion and the Ducks got an easy 20+ yards after the catch).

It also, though, exacerbates their run issues in off-tackle runs or anything outside — if Jimmy Lake wants to show off receivers’ blocking skills, against Arizona is the perfect opportunity to do it.

All that said, it’s not like their defense is exclusively man-to-man — just more than average in college I’d wager, and certainly more than you’d expect with their roster. But their play-calling is still pretty versatile, with plenty of different zone coverages too.

The main difficulty with their pass defense is getting the ball into the hands of a receiver — but once the ball is in the hands of someone, Arizona’s tackling in space isn’t great. Oregon, for example, had a huge touchdown by Jaylon Redd where he was surrounded by two high safeties who both botched the tackle in bang-bang misses. (Also, if someone goes back to this play and discovers it was actually a single high safety and a corner, my bad. Lack of all-22 film plus my eyesight being historically bad sometimes has ya girl missing on these...)

Whether against the pass or run, it really is those little two-degree angle misfires that hurt them. In that way, it feels like a blast from the past as a defense that Lavon Coleman, God Of Miniscule Degree Angle Manipulation would absolutely demolish.

This exacerbates the fact that they don’t really have any thumpers in this defense; it’s hard to drive ball-carriers backwards to start with, and it’s especially difficult if you’re constantly having to chase them from the side or behind because your initial two steps weren’t optimal.

The combo of Brittain Brown and Zach Charbonnet showed this off when Arizona played UCLA. Both of them took turns gashing the Wildcats for a couple plays, then dragging guys for many yards after contact. Granted, Brown and Charbonnet are an exceptional running back duo, but they really highlighted how vision plus decisive cutting from running backs strains Arizona’s defensive liabilities.

Oregon then showed off another approach to attacking Arizona’s defensive weakness — whereas UCLA K.I.S.S.’d (kept it simple, stupid) and more or less just let Brown and Charbonnet do their thing, the Ducks schemed their running backs into the second level really well.

More than anything against Oregon, Arizona had lots of trouble with their power runs, trap blocks, and pretty much anything to do with pulling linemen. Honestly, it reminded me a lot of the Huskies’ run defense — a lot of linebackers, safeties, and edge guys just running right into emerging blockers, giving running backs an incredibly clear hole to cut into and funnel through the second level.

And that wasn’t all! Oregon also even schemed their way into an explosive — gasp! — A gap run! What? That’s possible? Yes! For starters, they weren’t in 22 personnel with receivers in a close bunch, but were (as so often Oregon was against Arizona) in a wide trips set with all three receivers to the left, in 11 personnel. This left the Cats’ corners spread out of the equation, and the safeties were actually up quite shallow but — and this was the kicker — they were both just a few feet outside the tackles. Oregon knew Arizona’s linebackers and safeties don’t anticipate well so are a couple steps too slow to react plus make their first steps at the wrong angle, so by the time Travis Dye emerged through the A gap into the second level (behind the center who took out the one linebacker who would’ve had the perfect position to thump Dye immediately had he read it right), both safeties were too far plus poorly leveraged to stop him right then and there. Eventually the one who came up too quick would chase Dye down, but that was after he had already gone 50+ yards. Oregon would score six a couple plays later.

But this isn’t a mediocre film study on Oregon’s run game scheming perfectly for Arizona — it’s all just to say that their particular defensive weaknesses are blatantly on display in these instances and it would be absolutely silly to not exacerbate them with your offensive game plan.

To sum up:

  1. Safeties and linebackers have bad anticipation against the run
  2. Once they do anticipate too late where the run’s coming, safeties and linebackers take poor initial steps
  3. Safeties and linebackers aren’t great tacklers at off angles
  4. Profit

One would think a group of professionals paid collectively millions of dollars would want do something there...

Bottom Line

With the reminder that Arizona’s defense actually isn’t a porous block of Swiss cheese, obviously I’m not expecting Washington to destroy them offensively like they did last season. I think it’s fair to expect the score to be lower for both teams than that game.

That being said, Arizona’s defense has been frequently put in bad positions and it would be a colossal failure from Washington’s defense if they weren’t able to force those bad positions for Arizona.

And regardless, while this defense is better than they get credit for, they have such blatant weaknesses versus strengths that you can scheme around easily... ha... ha...

I’m vaguely encouraged, I suppose, by the fact that Washington’s been doing more running out of shotgun and single back formations the last couple weeks, but... not really? This is simply because the Dawgs don’t actually seem to have a real schematic strategy running, no matter what personnel or formation it’s out of.

The obvious answer here would be doing pretty much what Oregon did; Chris Petersen’s pulling guards would absolutely demolish this defense, and I just smiled picturing Jake Eldrenkamp just taking a dump on the Cats’ second level. And even if you’re not specifically running traps or power, their movement can be used against them in an inside zone approach or frankly anything that has a coherent thought process. This is especially true when you’re lining up receivers out wide, both as far as their own initial positioning and having that extra second of doubt in their safeties’ and linebackers’ minds about where the football’s going, considering their slow reactions and poor first steps.

Oof, that was a long one. Thanks to anybody still reading this, I guess.

Do good things, don’t do bad things, and bow down to Washington.