The Arizona Wildcats managed just one takeaway during the first 17-plus quarters of the 2018 season, among the many reasons their defense struggled to hold up its end of the bargain.
But since linebacker Jacob Colacion fell on a loose ball with 1:56 left before halftime against the USC Trojans on Sept. 29 the proverbial floodgates have opened in terms of turnovers. Arizona recovered two fourth-quarter fumbles against USC, helping fuel its near comeback against the Trojans, then registered four takeaways (three interceptions, one fumble) against the California Golden Bears in last week’s 24-17 win.
Two of those picks were brought back for TDs—one with the aid of a mid-play fumble recovery—giving Arizona two defensive scores in the same game for the first time since September 2015.
So, what changed? How did a defense that couldn’t buy a takeaway during the first four-plus games suddenly sit in the top half of the Pac-12 in turnovers gained?
Nothing, actually. Arizona’s defense is doing the same things it’s done all year long when it comes to trying to force turnovers. They’re just finally paying off.
In six games Arizona has forced six fumbles and broken up 26 passes in addition to its four interceptions. Three of the four picks have come on tipped balls, including twice against Cal.
“We’re just trying to get into the holes, get into the lanes of the pass as much as we can,” linebacker Tony Fields II said. “If the ball is too high we reach our hands up and try to get a pass deflection.”
Safety Jarrius Wallace had Arizona’s first interception this season against Southern Utah, on a pass tipped by linebacker Colin Schooler. Schooler wasn’t guarding anyone specific on that play but found himself in a position to affect the throw.
“Those tipped passes don’t come from players defending the (receiver), it’s just great defense,” Wallace said. “If (we are) in a zone, just get a hand up. Tipped balls, we’ve got to catch those.”
Arizona’s active hands aren’t just limited to balls in the air. Wallace stripped Cal receiver Kanawai Noa on a reception, though the Golden Bears recovered, while defensive end JB Brown strip-sacked Cal quarterback Brandon McIlwain with defensive tackle Dereck Boles falling on the loose ball.
“We play like this at practice all the time,” Brown said. “So if we practice like this, let’s keep the intensity up in in the game.”