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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Arizona football: UA defense forced six turnovers but still shows plenty of room for improvement

The+Arizona+defense+attempts+to+stop+Grambling+State+wide+receiver+Martez+Carter+%284%29+in+Saturdays+game.+The+Wildcat+defense+was+able+to+force+six+turnovers+in+the+second+half+of+the+game.
Darien Bakas

The Arizona defense attempts to stop Grambling State wide receiver Martez Carter (4) in Saturday’s game. The Wildcat defense was able to force six turnovers in the second half of the game.

Heading into Saturday’s late-night matchup between Arizona and Grambling State, the expectation for the Wildcats was to handle their business and coast to a trouble-free victory in their home opener.

The ideal scenario for Arizona fans was to thump the Tigers, enjoy the world famous Grambling State marching band and call it a night. But of course on a day filled with drama due to FCS schools taking power-five conference teams to the wire, the saga continued Saturday night in Tucson.

Back-to-back nerve wrecking games to kickoff the season are unusual for the Wildcats, but unlike last weekend’s matchup against BYU, the defense was a liability. Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez said the defense looked “disgusting” Saturday night.

All of the attention heading in to the game was on the quarterback change with redshirt sophomore Brandon Dawkins earning his first start at Arizona, but the defense’s performance took away his mojo and the attention swiftly changed to Grambling State’s quarterback DeVante Kincade, who posted 204 all-purpose yards before leaving the game with an injury.

Ironically, Kincade happened to be a former Rodriguez recruit and ended up being the guy to put the Tigers in position to upset the Wildcats. It was a case of BYU’s size last week, while this week was strictly about keeping up with Grambling State’s speed. Rodriguez said that Grambling State had a chance from the get-go because the differences between skill players were small.

“The gap is narrow, particularly with the skill guys,” Rodriguez said. “If you have a quarterback, a running back and a couple good wide receivers—in today’s offense, you always have a shot.”

Despite the Tigers were viewed as a cupcake nonconference team, Rodriguez didn’t look at this game as a potential blessing in disguise.

“I wanna take the headsets off at halftime,” Rodriguez said. “I didn’t have any expectations. I was really nervous about their skill players.”

Rodriguez ensured his headset was adjusted nice and tight heading into the locker room trailing 21-3 at halftime. The Wildcats’ defense was astray in the first half and there appeared to be too much of a cushion. The middle looked open the entire first half and the defensive backs occasionally played five to seven yards off of Grambling State’s wide receivers.

The dynamic play making ability of Kincade and wide receiver Martez Carter gave Arizona first-half nightmares. The Wildcats played aggressive and the duo bounced off defenders like pinballs or shook defenders in the open with cuts up field. Arizona senior linebacker Michael Barton said they took “bad angles” resulting in missed tackles. Rodriguez, on the other hand, was sickened and provided no excuse for the defensive performance.

“That’s as bad of tackling as we ever had—bad, bad,” Rodriguez said. “That’s the one thing that was really poor. Our tackling was gross.”

Even though the defense gave up 191 total yards and was on the field for 65 percent of the second quarter, the Wildcats managed to hold their heads high.

“Coach [Rodriguez] always tells us, ‘we play four-quarters,’” safety Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles said. “So we can never look at halftime and dwell on it, so we got to continue pushing forward.”

The second half was a similar story in terms of missed tackling, but the Wildcats were able to force more turnovers than Apple Annie’s Orchard has for sale. Arizona forced three fumbles and three interceptions and once the offense finally caught fire, both sides of the ball were feeding off each other.

“We came out in the first half flat and we didn’t come out with any energy,” Barton said. “The energy on the sideline and the energy on the field changed in the second half. You could feel it.”

Arizona doesn’t have any size up front whatsoever and Rodriguez said earlier this week that the defense worked on drills that focused on forcing turnovers. Arizona’s athleticism and playmaking abilities essentially won them the game in the second half, but the Tigers still managed to expose the Wildcats’ defense even without Kincade behind center.

“The turnovers were key,” Rodriguez said. “I can’t remember one stop and we had some silly penalties. We got to play a whole lot better. There were times where we played aggressive and then there were times where we played scared.”

Arizona goes back to the drawing boards and prepares for a less athletic Hawaii team, but with Arizona’s true leaders only combining for three total tackles in Paul Magloire Jr. and Sani Fuimaono, the defense is a concern moving forward.

With the conference schedule right around the corner, Arizona’s defense must make some basic adjustments because the unfriendly Pac-12 schedule can very well make the difference between a crack at a prime time bowl game or a 3-9 season.Follow Justin Spears on twitter.

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