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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Arizona football analysis: Defense is improved but tackling will be key at Oregon

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Colin Prenger / Arizona Daily Wildcat

Arizona’s defense wasn’t very good last season, as its 110th ranking for total defense in the nation attested to.

Entering this year, expectations were understandably low, especially considering the paper-thin depth on that side of the ball. Head coach Rich Rodriguez was desperate enough to move offensive players, like fullback Taimi Tutogi, to the other side.

The Wildcats’ defense has outperformed its low expectations to start, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of room for improvement.

Tackling was the biggest area of concern last year, and while it hasn’t been too bad thus far, the Wildcats will need to step up its game if the UA wants to upset the heavily favored Oregon on Saturday.

“We’ve tackled well,” Rodriguez said. “That’s going to be a key defensively, can we get there and then get them on the ground.”

“[It’s] really a mindset,” added safety Jared Tevis. “We go in and know we’re going to swarm the ball. Have to smother them. We do individual drills. We learn tackling in those drills, but just a mindset.”

Yes, the Wildcats’ defense forced four turnovers against Oklahoma State and held South Carolina State to 154 total yards on just 54 plays Saturday night, but the defensive line has been wholly unable to put any pressure on the quarterback. The Wildcats rank 107th in Division I FBS football with three sacks.

Against Oklahoma State, the one time a Wildcat defensive lineman got any sort of pressure on Cowboy quarterback Wes Lunt, he threw an interception that essentially sealed the upset for Arizona. Aside from that late pick, Lunt threw for 436 yards and four touchdowns against a defense that has allowed opponents to pass for 722 yards.

Clear lack of a pass-rush aside, the UA’s defense has played its worst on third downs. The Wildcats have given up 20 first downs in 52 third-down attempts, a 38.46 percent rate.

Prior to playing South Carolina State, which was only 2-of-13 on third downs, Arizona had given up 18 conversions in 39 attempts, for a 46 percent rate.

A key to beating teams like Oregon, who have the ability to score on every play, is keeping them off the field.

The Wildcats may not be the most talented team in the conference, particularly on defense, but Arizona has proven that when they stay focused, the sky is the limit. Oklahoma State held a 14-0 lead on the UA, just as it did in last year’s meeting. This time around, the Wildcats didn’t curl up into a ball of dysfunction and finished with a 21-point victory over a double-digit favorite, in large part thanks to a game-changing interception touchdown from cornerback Jonathan McKnight in the fourth quarter.

Last season, it often seemed that if the Wildcats got down, they were essentially out of the game, especially against upper-echelon competition. This season, in two of its three games, Arizona has kept its composure and has battled back to take beat Toledo in overtime, in addition to the pasting of Oklahoma State.

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