TUCSON, Ariz. — The word of the week when it’s come to the Arizona defense has been “disappointing.”
It’s been used in every sense after Arizona couldn’t stop USC last weekend in a 38-31 loss. And the Wildcats can’t afford another disappointing effort against Utah on Saturday — not when that would mean falling to 3-3 overall and 0-3 in the Pac-12.
“We didn’t tackle well, we didn’t get off blocks as well, and the disappointing part was we thought we had a pretty good idea of where they were going,” Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said of the USC game. “We didn’t make the plays that we can.”
Rodriguez then unrolled a laundry list of the Wildcats’ issues: coverage, tackling, alignment. All told, the problems resulted in 546 yards in total offense for the Trojans.
“We didn’t get the guys on the ground as fast as we needed to,” Rodriguez said. “We have to tackle the guys in the open field (against Utah). We’d done it the first few weeks but not the last two.”
The step up in competition probably contributed to that, but to their credit, Arizona players and coaches made no excuses. They just weren’t up to snuff. What had worked for most of the season — bending but not breaking, stopping teams when they had to — abandoned them last week.
“We had guys who normally make tackles (not make them),” Rodriguez said. “It wasn’t liked we were getting juked. We just didn’t wrap our arms and just didn’t have that same kind of passion we had shown earlier.”
Clearly, Rodriguez said, “we’re not to where we’re going to be.”
Depth is still an issue, as is personnel. Injuries are a factor, too — Jared Tevis has a knee issue and will miss the Utah game, Jake Fischer played with an ankle injury last week and others are similarly banged up — and while it’s the second year under coordinator Jeff Casteel, it seems that knowledge of the 3-3-5 scheme is still an issue at times. This just a couple weeks after it seemed certain that the defense had finally made significant strides.
“We’re working on a couple of different units as far as rushing the passer, so with those, hopefully we’ll be able to get more pressure,” senior nose tackle Tevin Hood said. “As far as the 3-3-5, I just think some of the young linebackers aren’t comfortable with the blitzes, (and) defensive line-wise we have to concern ourselves more with containing and pressure … so that right there stifles our numbers. But we should be able to work on that more.”
What Arizona needs is consistency. That and turnovers, always a deciding factor. Arizona had no interceptions or fumble recoveries last week and had just one the week before in a loss to Washington.
“We’ve lacked that the last couple of games,” Rodriguez said. “That’s got to be a key for us.”
Utah presents another problem, as the Utes are big and physical “and have backs that will make you miss,” said Wildcats linebacker Marquis Flowers. “They can turn things to big plays.”
Flowers said it’s all about preparation and not panicking.
“You can’t win every play, but we can try to win more of them,” Flowers said. “We didn’t last week, obviously. We just have to eliminate the big plays. Tackling is the big thing. We’re in the Pac-12, and a missed tackle can make a 2-yard play into a 30-yard play.”
The big thing, Flowers said, is the defense swarming to the ball. There wasn’t enough of it last week.
“When the first person missed the tackle, there wasn’t anyone else around him,” he said. “The first few games, we did a good job of flying to the ball. We just have to be better.”