Rodriguez: Arizona’s 3-3-5 defensive scheme not the problem
Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez has heard it every time his defense stumbles, even back in his days at West Virginia: Scrap the 3-3-5 defense.
Even as the calls have become louder following two blowout losses, Rodriguez still has the same answer: Not going to happen.
The Wildcats may be reeling right now, but the system is just fine and they’re sticking with it.
"No one evaluates what we are doing more than I do and what the staff does," Rodriguez said. "Those out there in the stands saying the 3-3-5 is no good. At least they’re talking about it, but do they know what goes in and out of it, the history behind it? I don’t think so. So I don’t listen to ’em."
The 3-3-5 is a version of the better-known nickel defense teams run in passing situations. With the proliferation of spread offenses in college football, Rodriguez decided to have five defensive backs in all the time instead of subbing out, with three linebackers and three linemen.
The defense is fairly uncommon, used by a handful of teams in college football, so anytime the defense falters, the scheme is what fans want to blame.
The latest change-the-scheme round in the desert came after Arizona suffered consecutive blowouts to UCLA and Stanford.
The Bruins ran for 237 yards in their 56-30 win over the Wildcats at Arizona Stadium.
Arizona’s defense had a hard time stopping Stanford’s Christian McCaffery this past weekend, allowing the sophomore to run for 156 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries. The Cardinal had 314 yards rushing in the 55-17 win.
Overall, Arizona is allowing 453.2 yards per game, last in the Pac-12 and 110th nationally.
The struggles have led to calls for the Wildcats to switch to a 3-4 defense over the 3-3-5.
"It’s OK to bring it up, but a 3-4 is a three-man front, right?" Rodriguez said. "Just about 90 percent of the teams run some three-man front, either wholly and partially, so I don’t think it’s the scheme."
Injuries have certainly been a part of it, particularly at middle linebacker.
Arizona lost Cody Ippolito to a knee injury before the season started, then All-American Scooby Wright suffered a left knee injury that knocked him out for two games. Wright returned against UCLA, only to sprain his right foot. He’s expected to be out at least a couple more weeks.
Haden Gregory, Wright’s backup, has missed three games with an injury and DeAndre Miller, another linebacker, missed two games and didn’t start against Stanford due to a wrist injury.
The rash of injuries to one position has limited what the Wildcats can do, particularly without Wright. The junior swept last season’s major national defensive player of the year awards and was the anchor to the defense, from a communication, emotional and play-making standpoint.
"As a coach, when you talk about injuries when you lose, it’s an excuse," Rodriguez said. "When you talk about injuries when you win, it’s logic. But the problem is compounded when it’s at one position. It limits some of the packages that we can do."
It’s more than just injuries. Arizona’s execution has been off.
Two keys for the 3-3-5 to work, particularly against the run, is for the defensive linemen to get off blocks and the linebackers to make tackles.
That hasn’t happened very well this season. The defensive linemen have struggled to shake blocks and missed tackles — by everyone, not just the linebackers — have been rampant, particularly the past two games.
"If your guys struggle to get off blocks, whether in a three-man front or a four-man front, it’s going to be an issue," Rodriguez said.
The Wildcats have had all kinds of issues on that side of the ball. The scheme isn’t one of them, at least in Rodriguez’s mind.
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