After back-to-back road losses, the Huskies have a chance to regroup at home against the Arizona Wildcats. Fortunately, our offense has gashed every defense we’ve played so far this season, and the Wildcat defense should be no different. Arizona is in the 12th percentile in opponent scoring average (116th of 131 teams) and has given up over 220 yards per game on the ground. When Cal (354 rushing yards) and Oregon (306 rushing yards) have dominated the Wildcats on the ground, one would hope that we’d be able to follow the same recipe for success.
Arizona’s defense is under new management this season with former DC Don Brown having departed to take the HC job at UMass. Johnny Nansen, former UW assistant HC, RB coach, and Special Teams Coordinator, is now leading the Wildcat defense. Nansen has quite the diverse resume having coached all three phases of the game, and HC Jedd Fisch has made statements specifically citing Nansen’s experience coaching on offense as a key factor in his hiring. Between his departure from UW and his hiring at Arizona, Nansen coached ILBs and was the defensive run game coordinator at USC and UCLA where he led his units to top-end finishes in yards per carry allowed.
The irony here is that despite his experience and understanding of the run game and his past success, his Arizona rushing defense has been abysmal. Working out of a hybrid 4-2-5 front, the Wildcats defensive scheme attempts to blend 3-4 principles into a 4-man front with 3 hand-down DL and a stand up EDGE. In some ways its similar to the front that we used under Lake and Gregory where we’d play a bigger DL on the field side edge and a stand up pass rush OLB to the boundary. Arizona likes to set their defensive alignments based on field/boundary rather than by the offensive formation and numbers, so there may be an opportunity to pick on their alignments with formations into the boundary (like 3x1 formations with the trips on the boundary side.
From a coverage scheme standpoint, Arizona almost exclusively plays 1-high shell coverages with a mix of zone and man coverages underneath. Their overall strategy is to stop the run (even if it hasn’t been very effective) and limit explosive plays. They know that they don’t have lock down DBs or a stout defensive front, but by limiting explosive plays and using team speed to rally to the ball carrier, they are praying that a bend but don’t break approach can let their offense win the game.
From a personnel perspective, this is still a roster that is being rebuilt. If you just look at the measurables, the defense doesn’t look too bad. There’s some size up front and length on the perimeter. However, given how the roles on defense, they still don’t have all the pieces necessary to execute the scheme.
Up front, Kyon Barrs and Paris Shand haven’t been able to step up into to be the type of double-team eating DTs that can protect the undersized LB group. There’s athleticism at the second level, but when offensive linemen don’t have to worry about needing double teams to move the DL, they have a field day teeing off on LBs. Tackling is another issue in the defensive front. From what I’ve seen, there really aren’t any guys in the front 6 that have the stopping power to take down ball carriers 1v1, and if the defense is going to rely on swarming tackling, the defensive line can’t let the second level get picked on by the OL.
On the edges, Hunter Echols is their biggest pass rush threat coming from the “KAT” stand up pass rusher position. However, Oregon exposed him in the run game when he’s asked to set the edge. He typically aligns in a wider technique, so attacking him with power or counter concepts where we can kick him out to widen an inside run lane might be a feasible plan.
In the secondary, PFF has DBs Christian Roland-Wallace, Jaxen Turner, and Treydan Stukes as the highest graded defenders for Arizona. Roland-Wallace does a decent job in coverage as the primary boundary CB, and Stukes has the best tackling grade of any Arizona defender, but with a porous run defense, we might be able to take them completely out of the equation with a strong rushing performance. Something else that I noticed was their questionable ability to shed blocks. Coming from their softer coverage alignments off the LOS, Oregon attacked their DBs with tunnel screens and perimeter screens to force them into block shedding and open space tackling situations to great effect.
For a Husky team that has a Jekyll & Hyde complex with home and away games, a bounce back game at home against an Arizona team that has already shown their fatal flaws on defense should be a welcome relief. The passing game is our clear strength on offense, but the run game has started to find traction over the last few weeks, just in time to take advantage of Arizona’s biggest weakness. A healthy mix of rushing, perimeter screens against soft coverage, and selective use of shot plays will be our path to success. Taking the lead early and shortening the game on the ground would go a long way to helping out our own defense.