For months, Jourdon Grandon and Arizona’s secondary heard tales about their poor pass defense.
The Wildcats gave up 292.9 yards per game through the air in 2012, finishing last in the Pac-12 and 117th out of 120 FBS teams nationally.
So you know Grandon wants to talk about where the Wildcats rank now.
Believe it or not, the UA leads the conference with 201.3 passing yards allowed per game. The numbers also rank 18th nationally.
“We’re very aware of it,” said starting free safety Grandon. “We check out the numbers sometimes. It’s cool to see improvement. But we have to stay hungry.
“We know we’re getting better, and we know we’re getting close to how good we want to be, but we have to keep pushing.”
Even though the numbers show drastic improvement, Grandon and defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel insist the Wildcats still have room for improvement.
And that makes sense. USC receiver Nelson Agholor and Colorado’s Paul Richardson both went for more than 100 yards in a half against the UA. Utah completed a 55-yard flea flicker for a touchdown, marring an otherwise stellar performance by the Wildcats defense.
Although the UA is still giving up big plays, it’s also limiting damage and making adjustments.
After their big halves, Agholor, who had 128 yards in the first half against the UA, caught just 33 yards’ worth of passes in the second half. Richardson, who went for 112 in the game’s first 30 minutes, had just 20 yards in the second half.
“The kids have done a really good job of staying the course and working,” said Casteel, the Wildcats’ second-year coordinator and architect of their 3-3-5 “odd-stack” defense. “That’s why they’ve been able to do as well as they have up to this point. We have to keep getting better and keep working.
“But I think they’re playing more aggressive, and they’re more comfortable with what we’re asking them to do.”
Saturday’s game at Cal could be the toughest test to date for Arizona’s pass defense.
The Golden Bears (1-7) rank eighth in the nation with 358.9 passing yards per game; they’re just 834 yards from the school record for most passing yards in a season.
Coach Sonny Dykes’ team has passed for 460 or more yards in a game three times this season — against Washington State, Portland State and Northwestern — and put up 371 yards against Ohio State.
True freshman Jared Goff has seven completions of 50 yards or more this season, which is tied with Baylor’s Bryce Petty for most in the country.
“Cal is really athletic, and they have some really good receivers all over the place, and the quarterback has a gun,” Casteel said. “We’re going to get tested this week and see how we’re going.
“They have a lot of things that give you trouble, and they make you defend the entire field vertically and horizontally and can give us a lot of issues.”
The pass defense should improve even more once the UA generates a more consistent pass rush, Casteel said.
The UA has nine sacks through seven games, with just three of them coming in Pac-12 play. All three of those sacks came in the win over Utah.
Arizona was shut out on sacks against Washington, USC and Colorado.
Getting in Goff’s face Saturday will be a huge key to stopping the pass, Casteel said.
“We still have a ways to go there,” said Casteel of the pass rush. “We have to continue to find ways to affect the quarterback and make sure he feels our presence a little bit.
“Whether we’re sacking him, which we’d love to be able to do, or at least making him move his feet and make him throw a ball and not a strike, we have to get some pressure.”