Last year’s game against Arizona was one for the record books. Michael Penix Jr. set UW’s single game passing record and the offense absolutely torched the Wildcat defense as a whole. However, this season’s Arizona defensive unit has a slew of new faces intent on avoiding the same outcome in this week’s match up.
The Scheme & Personnel
Heading into his second season as the Wildcats’ DC, Johnny Nansen, a former UW assistant, is starting to see improvement in his defense. Like last season, Arizona runs a hybrid 4-2-5 front with a 4-man front with 3 hand-down DL and a stand up EDGE. Their DL rotation is where the bulk of Arizona’s experience lies with grad transfers or 4th+ year players at every position. At the second level, former UW LB Daniel Heimuli and sophomore Jacob Manu are holding down the LB corps. Manu, while undersized for the position, has been effective as a blitzer in the Wildcats’ pressure packages, so he will be one to keep an eye on. In the secondary, the experience is a bit more varied. RS sophomore safety Dalton Johnson leads all starting DBs in PFF grades, but UCLA-transfer senior DB Martell Irby actually holds the highest grade of all DBs while coming off the bench in a significant rotational role.
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 and to create impact plays with the thinking that the strengths of their team lie in an explosive offense and an experienced defensive front. If they can roll the dice with a DB room that is slowly evolving into a man coverage unit, and pray that an aggressive defensive front can create chaos in the backfield, then they can hopefully create enough stops to let their offense carry the team to victory.
Keys to the Game
Looking back at last year’s film against Arizona, Coach Grubb made it a point to punish their defense whenever they leaned into their Cover 1 man tendencies. When Arizona shows a single high safety, we should expect to see a healthy dose of “formation into boundary” (FIB) looks where the majority of our WRs are on the boundary side of the formation. These looks will force Arizona into declaring man or zone coverage, and when they are in man, the solo WR on the field side will have endless space to win the 1v1 deep. We may also see a few Slot Fades and Fade Smash concepts against these looks.
I suspect that we’ll see some of the Cover 4/Quarters looks that we saw last year when the Wildcats tried to keep a lid on our vertical passing game. When we see those looks, we are going to attack their safeties. Last year we did this with the Mills concept (Post + Dig, Hi-Lo on the safety) and a healthy dose of Sail concepts (Go + Corner + Flat, 3 level read on the boundary). All of these concepts are predicated on us protecting Penix long enough to deliver the deep ball, and Arizona will try to test our protection in the middle. You have to when you want to play as much man coverage as Arizona. Watch for us to utilize the RBs more heavily in 6-man protections in lieu of the TE in order to provide extra help up the middle.