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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Front seven lead improvement in run defense

    Oregon State running back Yvenson Bernard cant escape the grasp of junior linebacker Spencer Larsen in Arizonas 17-10 loss to the Beavers in Arizona Stadium on Oct. 21. Larsen and the Wildcats defense have jumped from ninth in the Pacific 10 Conference to fourth against the rush this season, allowing 105.8 yards per game.
    Oregon State running back Yvenson Bernard can’t escape the grasp of junior linebacker Spencer Larsen in Arizona’s 17-10 loss to the Beavers in Arizona Stadium on Oct. 21. Larsen and the Wildcats defense have jumped from ninth in the Pacific 10 Conference to fourth against the rush this season, allowing 105.8 yards per game.

    Everyone looking for signs of progress in an up-and-down third season for Arizona football head coach Mike Stoops can steer their eyes toward the team’s front seven.

    Junior-college transfer Louis Holmes has brought elite size and skills at defensive end, and good health all around, particularly at linebacker, has allowed the Wildcats to shore up its once-anemic run defense.

    Arizona enters Saturday’s game against No. 8 California fifth in the Pacific 10 Conference in that category at 105.8 yards per game. Last season, the Wildcats conceded 183.7, which ranked ninth.

    “”(Improvement) was demanded of us,”” said sophomore linebacker Ronnie Palmer. “”I know it was one of our three main goals coming into the season. We needed to get better stopping the run and causing turnovers. We’re going to need (to do) that these next three games, definitely.””

    The Wildcats need two wins against the top three rushing teams in the Pac-10 – No. 21 Oregon, Cal and ASU – to qualify for their first bowl game since 1998.

    Keeping the run in check should be the best means of meeting that quota, as Arizona is 4-1 when holding teams to 100 or fewer rushing yards.

    Then-No. 25 Washington State managed only 61 yards on the ground Saturday en route to a 27-17 Wildcat upset in Pullman, Wash.

    The Cougars relied on their passing game, throwing 33 times, and Arizona capitalized, sacking quarterback Alex Brink four times and forcing four fumbles.

    “”As a whole unit, it’s good to be able to stop a team from running the ball, because a lot of teams like to run to keep you honest,”” said Holmes, who earned his team-high fourth sack Saturday. “”But when you stop the run, they don’t have any choice but to pass, and we were pass-rushing pretty good.””

    Arizona’s front seven has prospered if for no other reason than its main contributors have stayed in the lineup, Stoops said Monday.

    The three games defensive tackle Yaniv Barnett missed in September with an irregular heartbeat and a hyper-extended elbow represent the only significant action a starter has missed.

    Most notably, linebackers Spencer Larsen, Dane Krogstad and Palmer have yet to sit out a contest, after not starting a single game together due to myriad injuries in 2005.

    A Weakness No More
    Better health and more experience compared to last season have helped the Arizona football team lift its run defense into the top half of the Pacific 10 Conference rankings.
    2006Pac-10 rank: Fourth
    Rushing yards allowed per game: 105.8
    Pac-10 rank: Ninth
    Rushing yards allowed per game: 183.7

    “”It makes a big difference,”” Palmer said. “”Pre-game, when we’re out there running around, we know we’re going into war, and it’s going to be us three, and that’s how we’re going to finish. We’re definitely happy to play together.””

    The defensive line is also showing greater on-field maturity, Stoops said, adding that players like Barnett and fellow tackles Lionel Dotson and Marcus Smith have played more consistently than last season in the team’s gap-control scheme.

    Meanwhile, the 6-foot-6, 270-pound Holmes, the nation’s No. 1-ranked junior-college player in the offseason, is continuing to emerge as Stoops’ “”difference-maker.””

    “”We have a guy like Louis who’s very dynamic to that group and really solidifies it across the board,”” Stoops said.

    So far, the linemen have been rewarded more with general penetration into the backfield than open lines to the quarterback, but Stoops said sacks will come with more experience.

    Holmes said he liked that coaches allowed the linemen to play more freely within their assignments Saturday and focus on attacking Brink.

    “”We got those types of guys now who can be very disruptive and very active and be in a different position to rush people,”” Stoops said. “”I’m pleased with all of them. I think they’re playing all very well.””

    The front seven’s improvement has carried over to the Wildcat secondary as well.

    Although the group has only five interceptions in nine games, the second-worst total in the Pac-10, cornerback Wilrey Fontenot said the team’s ability to stop the run makes it easier to predict whether an opponent will pass on a given play.

    “”We’re expecting ‘pass’ this year,”” he said. “”Last year, a team would run on us and we wouldn’t know what to expect.””

    The Golden Bears bring in quarterback Nate Longshore, the conference leader in touchdown passes with 20.

    Nonetheless, their rush attack, led by running back Marshawn Lynch, who leads the Pac-10 in rushing yards with 988, aims to present the biggest test yet for Arizona’s newfound strength.

    “”That’s going to be challenged to the max this week,”” Stoops said. “”I’m sure our guys will prepare well and hopefully come out and play well. It’ll be exciting.””

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