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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Arizona takeaways key to upset of Oklahoma State

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Larry Hogan/Arizona Daily Wildcat

The old adage says offense sells tickets and defense wins championships.

Just two weeks into its season, Arizona might not be anywhere near a championship-caliber team, but its defensive resurgence has made the difference in an unblemished 2-0 record and No. 24 ranking in this week’s AP Top 25.

The Wildcats’ defensive struggles have been well documented. Last season, Arizona had the second-worst pass defense in America and the 110th overall defense in the nation. Arizona’s offense was scoring 30.7 points per game, but the defense was unable to stop anyone, falling so far as to allow 273 rush yards to lowly Colorado, who finished the season 3-10.

This year, the Wildcats have given up a slew of yards, an average of 497 per game, or 111th in the country. The difference isn’t apparent in third down conversions either, where the Wildcats have given up 18 conversions in 39 attempts, a 46.1 percent clip.

The difference has been Arizona’s ability to take advantage of the opportunities that the offense gives them. In Saturday night’s game against Oklahoma State, the Arizona defense forced four turnovers against a team that had scored 84 points a week ago and scored touchdowns on each of its first five drives.

More importantly, the Wildcats were down 14-0 in Saturday night’s contest less than eight minutes into the game.

“They (the defensive coaching staff) were telling us to wake up and trying to get us fired up,” said sophomore safety Jared Tevis, who had two of Arizona’s three interceptions. “We came out a little flat and we were just telling each other, ‘Bear down and let’s stop this right here. This is where it stops.’”

After some defensive adjustments, Arizona forced a punt or turnover on the next six Oklahoma State possessions, only one of which was longer than three plays.

Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State’s head coach, said after the game that it was not just his players’ fault; the burden also fell on the coaching staff.

“You can’t win, can’t be a good football team and you can’t win on the road, especially, playing like that,” he said.

For all the forced turnovers and defensive stops against the Cowboys’ potent offense, the Wildcats’ defensive line is still a work in progress. On Saturday night, Oklahoma State’s offensive line kept Cowboy quarterback Wes Lunt upright the entire game and created holes for Joseph Randle to rush for 123 yards.

Arizona’s defense was not able to tackle Randle behind the line of scrimmage once, and sure, there were way too many wide-open receivers in white jerseys for the defense to be called successful, but the pass rush helped make the biggest play of the night.

With 12:30 remaining in the game and the Oklahoma State offense inside its own 20-yard-line, Lunt felt his first pressure of the night on a blitz from safety Tra’Mayne Bondurant. Lunt was forced into making a bad throw that UA corner Jonathan McKnight easily intercepted and returned 48 yards for an Arizona touchdown, putting the Wildcats up two touchdowns.

Tevis said that the McKnight pick-six got the entire Wildcats roster fired up. That play was the moment Arizona realized it might win this game.

“It was just great seeing him run down that sideline,” Tevis said.
In 2011, Oklahoma State led the nation in turnovers gained, with 44, while the Wildcats had just 16 on the season, 101st in the nation. The tables turned in a big way on Saturday.

“The turnovers were big,” Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez said. “We made a couple stops but they got a lot of yards, they were going be hard to stop. We gave up way too many big plays but at the same time they made the stops when they had to.”

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