In their season opener against NAU, the Arizona Wildcats defense gave up 270 yards and pitched a shutout.
Against UNLV, the UA gave up 282 yards and 13 points. One week later, UTSA, gained 379 yards and scored 13 points.
Arizona then moved into Pac-12 play and saw Washington gain 409 yards and score 31 points. Finally, last week, USC put up 546 yards and 38 points against Jeff Casteel’s defense.
Sensing a trend here?
Each week this season, the Wildcats have given up more yards and — with the exception of the UTSA game — more points than the game before.
The defense has gone from a strong point of this year’s Wildcats to an average group to a unit that now has some warts to hide.
Things boiled over in last week’s loss to USC.
“Sometimes we just didn’t get off blocks; sometimes our eyes weren’t in the right spots,” UA coach Rich Rodriguez said. “They might have got us on a call or two and they may have executed better than us as well. The disappointing part is we gave up a couple of big plays that we hadn’t given up earlier. Even though we’ve played well defensively, we’re not to the point where we’re going to be 22-23 deep.”
Added defensive end Reggie Gilbert: “Watching the USC film, we weren’t getting off of blocks as well as we should have. That’s something as a defense we plan on focusing on this week: getting separation at the point of attack.”
Arizona will try to turn things around this week against a Utah team that is averaging 470.2 yards per game and ranks No. 31 nationally in total offense.
“They’re definitely a physical team,” Gilbert said. “They’re a big team up front. We have to use our hands well, and we can dominate the line of scrimmage.”
Getting off blocks was just the first part of Arizona’s problem. The Wildcats also missed tackles.
Once USC got into space, Arizona had a tough time wrapping up and bringing USC’s playmakers to the ground.
The tackling problem could be tied to the fact that the Wildcats don’t hit much in practice. Rodriguez said Tuesday that his routine will stay the same, in part because the UA can’t afford any more injuries. The Wildcats play seven games over the next seven weeks.
“I thought about that, but it wasn’t a huge issue in the first four games, so why did it raise its hands against USC?” Rodriguez said. “Some of it last game was that we did not do a good job of wrapping our arms. It’s a little bit perplexing.”
Perplexing is the perfect word to describe UA’s defense this season. Here’s a game-by-game look at the defense from the first five games:
• Final tally: The Lumberjacks gained 270 yards on 75 plays and committed three turnovers.
• What the UA did well: The Wildcats held NAU to 4 of 19 on third-down conversions and sacked Lumberjacks quarterback Kyren Poe three times.
• What the UA struggled with: NAU converted four of five fourth-down plays and had the ball for 11 minutes and 51 seconds in the fourth quarter.
• Final tally: The Rebels averaged 4.5 yards per play, gaining 282 yards on 63 plays. The Wildcats forced three turnovers in the lopsided win.
• What the UA did well: Casteel’s group held UNLV to just 9 for 28 passing for 125 yards and two interceptions. The Wildcats were also strong on third down again, stopping the Rebels on 11 of 15 tries.
• What the UA struggled with: The lone blemish for the UA’s defense against the Rebels was giving up the big play. UNLV scored on a 69-yard pass and a 79-yard run.
• Final tally: UTSA ran 76 plays and gained 379 yards, or 5 yards per play, against the Wildcats.
• What the UA did well: The Wildcats held UTSA to 102 rushing yards on 29 carries and registered seven tackles for loss in the win.
• What the UA struggled with: UTSA completed 64 percent of its passes for 277 yards and recorded 15 first downs through the air.
• Final tally: The Huskies became the first team to gain more than 400 yards in a game against the UA, averaging 4.8 yards per play in a 31-13 win.
• What the UA did well: Though the Wildcats had some help with the rain, Arizona held Washington quarterback Keith Price without a completion in the second quarter, held Washington to just 165 passing yards in the game and registered an interception.
• What the UA struggled with: Washington’s ground game pounded out 244 yards on 61 attempts and reached the end zone twice.
• Final tally: The Trojans gained 7.3 yards per play and outgained the UA by 38 yards, despite running two fewer plays.
• What the UA did well: Not much. Maybe the lone bright spot was holding USC to 6 for 13 on third-down conversions.
• What the UA struggled with: Getting pressure on the quarterback. The Wildcats didn’t record a sack and have just one in their last two games. The UA had five in its first three games.