Defensive progress evident, but Arizona wants more

TUCSON, Ariz. — For nearly three quarters Saturday, give or take a play or two, Arizona’s defense went toe-to-toe with then-No. 16 Washington’s dynamic offense.

It bent, but it didn’t break. Well, not until near the end of the third quarter, when the Huskies started to pull away — thanks in part to the Wildcats’ struggles on offense — in an eventual 31-13 win.

Defensive back Jared Tevis called the performance “promising because we know what we are capable of,” adding, “but the next thing is great defenses are consistent, and that’s what we need to be.”

Washington’s offense got the better of Saturday’s matchup in the second half, when fatigue clearly set in for UA. The weather also got better; Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said the poor weather may have helped his team stay in it in the first half, as both teams struggled with the elements in a low-scoring first 30 minutes.

Of course, the Huskies had something to do with it the second-half takeover. But perhaps not as much as one might think.

Arizona defensive lineman Tevin Hood turned mathematician to explain, stating that an “overwhelming majority” of the defensive plays were good ones.

“Last week, they ran 88 plays. If you take away three 50-yard plays and one 20-plus yard run, they’ll have about 292 yards on 88 plays so that’s about (3.3 yards per play),” Hood said.

Of course, a loss is a loss, as Hood acknowledged, and the bad plays can’t simply be removed from consideration. But the numbers show that things can get better with just one fewer mistake here, one fewer missed tackle there.

It all goes to show that Arizona’s defense has come a long way. Last year, Hood pointed out, UCLA put up 66 points and “had some astronomical amount of yards” (611) in the same amount of plays Washington ran on Saturday.

“We’ve improved as a unit. And sure, we still bust coverages and make mistakes, but overall, our fundamentals are a lot better,” Hood said.

Tevis agreed, saying the defense “has come a long way.”

“We’re not perfect, and we need to be more disciplined, but a lot of our experienced players are showing they have experience and know more of what’s going on.”

Through four games — although three were against non-BCS-conference competition — Arizona is allowing just 14.3 points, ranking 12th in the country in scoring defense. The yardage numbers aren’t quite as friendly, but the Wildcats still rank 29th nationally in total defense at 335 yards allowed per game.

After a bye week, another big test comes next Thursday in the form of a talented but reeling USC team that will be playing under a new coach, as Lane Kiffin was fired earlier this week and replaced by interim coach Ed Orgeron.

Rodriguez said he expects to see some of what USC has shown on offense through the first four games but can’t be sure since every coach has his own style.

He’s also not sure if his defense will have the services of senior linebacker Jake Fischer, who suffered a high ankle sprain late in the loss to Washington.

“We’re hoping,” Rodriguez said of Fischer’s return. “Jake’s deal is that he’s the most conscientious guy we’ve got on our team — offense or defense. Football is really important to him.”

Fischer is the unquestioned leader on defense, perhaps on the entire team. Hood called him the defense’s field general.

“They know he’s the rock in the middle,” Rodriguez said. “He can calm things down if they see something that’s abnormal.”

Added Hood: “There’s no doubt in my mind he’ll be ready for next week. He plays through pain all the time.”

NOTABLE

Arizona announced via Twitter that freshman defensive lineman Luca Bruno has been declared academically eligible. He could emerge as a backup to senior Tevin Hood at nose guard, but he’s been held out of practice for about a month while awaiting the NCAA’s ruling.

Bruno, 6-foot-4, 260 pounds, is from Oak Park (Calif.) High. The NCAA deemed Bruno a non-qualifier but eventually deemed him eligible after a request from the athletic department.