The Arizona Wildcats’ quarterback play has been erratic. The offense as a whole has been up and down.
The defense, meanwhile, has been a constant over the past three games.
Who would have thought we’d ever say that about a Rich Rodriguez-coached team?
By almost every conceivable measure, Arizona’s defense has improved significantly since last season. It hasn’t necessarily translated to overall positive results on the field: The Wildcats fell to 2-2 after a turnover-filled, 30-24 loss to No. 23 Utah on Friday night. Despite allowing only three fourth-quarter points — combined — in the past three games, Arizona has lost two of them.
But if there’s anything the Wildcats can hang their helmets on over the next two weeks, it’s the defense’s tangible turnaround.
“They competed, tackled pretty well, got a couple big plays,” Rodriguez said after the Utah game. “There’s a lot of young guys playing for the first time. I like their intensity.”
Rodriguez has been retooling the defense since the end of the 2015 season, when he began the process of turning over the staff on that side of the ball. This year’s recruiting class has provided a plethora of promising playmakers. Four of the top six tacklers against Utah were true freshmen. (Another was a redshirt freshman.)
Here are some of the ways second-year coordinator Marcel Yates’ young, aggressive defense has improved:
- The Wildcats are allowing 22.2 points per game, down from 38.3 last season.
- They have surrendered 376.0 yards per game and 5.4 per play, down from 469.3 and 6.1.
- Arizona has allowed 383 or fewer yards in each of the past three games. The Wildcats surrendered fewer than 400 only two times last season.
- The Wildcats have yielded 118.0 rushing yards per game and 3.6 per carry, down from 194.2 and 4.7 last season. Arizona has allowed 129 rushing yards in its past two games, its lowest two-game total since holding UCLA and Washington State to 124 in 2009 (both victories).
- Arizona has nine takeaways in four games – just five shy of last season’s total in 12 games.
- The Wildcats are limiting opponents to a 35.7 percent conversion rate on third down. Last year, Arizona allowed 52.6 percent – the second-worst figure in the nation. After limiting the Utes to 2 of 10 on third down, the Wildcats have held their past two opponents to 4 of 22.
- Arizona has limited its past three opponents to 21 or fewer first downs. That happened only twice last season. The three occurrences equal the team’s total from the 2015 and ’14 seasons.
As mentioned, the Wildcats are doing this with several true freshmen playing prominent roles. Defensive end/linebacker Kylan Wilborn (five tackles, forced fumble, fumble recovery vs. Utah), linebacker Tony Fields II (six tackles, one sack) and safety Scottie Young Jr. (six tackles) are starters. Linebacker Colin Schooler (team-high eight tackles, two TFLs) hasn’t started yet, but his ascent is inevitable.
“We’ve got a lot of good, young players,” Rodriguez said. “They’re going to grow up. This’ll be a learning experience. I’d rather learn by winning. It’s not fun to learn when you’re losing.”
There’s the rub: Arizona still didn’t win.
The defense surrendered only two touchdown drives against Utah, on its opening possession in each half. The Utes’ other touchdown came on an interception return.
Excluding the first and last possessions of the second half (the last consisted of two kneel-downs to run out the clock), Utah managed only one scoring drive after intermission: a 52-yard march for a field goal. On their four other second-half possessions, the Utes gained only one first down.
Did it help that Utah lost starting quarterback Tyler Huntley in the second quarter? Of course. But it was Fields’ crunching sack that knocked him out.
Fields didn’t take much solace in his or the defense’s performance because it didn’t result in a victory. But Rodriguez, his staff and the fan base can feel good about the composure Fields displayed and the perspective he showed after the game.
“Losing, there’s always a lot of frustration,” Fields said. “But it’s about how you take the loss, not about how it happens. If we dwell on it, we become a worse team next week.
“But if we take the loss and try to do the best we can next week in practice in preparation for Colorado, we’re better.”
- Arizona is off next week before visiting Colorado on Oct. 7. The start time and TV assignment for that game should be announced Monday.
- Rodriguez wasn’t happy with the outcome of two fourth-quarter replay reviews. On the first, the officials ruled that Brandon Dawkins fumbled before being down; the call stood. On the second, after Dawkins’ third and final interception, replay was used to determine whether he had been the victim of targeting. It was determined that he hadn’t been. “It didn’t go our way,” Rodriguez said. “They didn’t throw a flag, but for some reason they stopped and reviewed it. You saw the same replay I saw? OK.”
- Dawkins on the loss to Utah: “Any loss hurts. You never want to go out with a loss. But, you know, I’m proud of the guys. Nobody gave up. Nobody hung their head throughout the whole game, and everybody kept playing. Tough loss, but a close loss we can build off of.”
- Arizona committed five turnovers for the first time since a 49-0 loss to Oregon on Sept. 22, 2012 – Rodriguez’s fourth game at UA.
- The attendance of 36,651 marked Arizona’s first sub-40,000 home crowd since Nov. 26, 2011, vs. Louisiana-Lafayette. That was the Wildcats’ final game in a 4-8 season.