Queue up any footage of the Arizona Wildcats on defense this season and you’re apt to notice a theme. And not a good one.
When not distracted by the team’s overall lack of pass rush, its tendency to get beat over the top on deep passes or the way sophomore linebacker Colin Schooler seems to be everywhere, even the most untrained eye will notice something particularly troubling happening far too often: poor tackling.
Watch a drive or two and you won’t go more than a few plays without seeing a Wildcat player in perfect position to make a tackle only to let the ball carrier out of his grasp, or miss him altogether.
This was particularly evident during Utah’s first two drives last Friday, when the Utes ran 23 total plays and gained 144 yards. They converted 4 of 5 third downs, the first a third and 5 in which running back Zack Moss should have been stopped behind the line of scrimmage on a short pass.
Instead, Moss shed tackle attempts by numerous Arizona players on the way to a six-yard gain for a new set of downs.
“On that third and 5 with all those broken tackles, I was like, ‘whoa, what’s going on?,’” defensive end PJ Johnson said Tuesday. “That caught me off guard. I was like, ‘we need to fix this now.’”
If what happened against Utah was a one-time thing, Johnson’s demand for immediate correction would hold more weight. But this has been a season-long problem, one that’s been key to Arizona ranking 107th nationally in third down defense.
Teams are converting 43.36 percent of the time, including 25 of 67 times (37.3 percent) when facing third and seven or more yards.
Technique has been a big part of the issue, redshirt freshman stud Jalen Harris said.
“I think it’s mostly wrapping up, not having your head where it’s supposed to be and just flying in there,” said Harris, who has 15 tackles including 1.5 for loss this season. “So we need to come with our arms more. We’re supposed to focus on the inside number, so when we do that, we gotta focus on the eyes and make that tackle.”
Added Johnson: “After watching film, I thought people were just running through and weren’t getting ready to tackle anything. We were giving too much effort, instead of using technique.”
Safety Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles, fourth on the team with 31 tackles, said the Wildcats “weren’t ourselves” against Utah.
“It was just one of those games where it wasn’t clicking,” he said. “We were doing stuff that beats ourselves and we can’t do that. We weren’t pursuing the ball how we usually do or wrapping up and tackling like we usually do. We’re going to shake that because we can’t dwell on it.”
The trend in college football is to minimize the amount of hitting and tackling that goes on in practice as a way of avoiding unnecessary injury. That also can make a team more susceptible to poor execution in this area.
Johnson said Arizona does tackle in practice, just not as much as earlier in the year.
“I just feel like as late as it is in the season, we don’t hit as much, so when we do our thud periods, squaring up the right way on a ballcarrier and having your feet right will help fix your tackling.”
At 3-4 with a difficult schedule ahead, the Wildcats are running out of time to make the necessary adjustments.
Lose Saturday to a 1-5 UCLA team, and any hope of playing in a bowl game could slip away, not unlike how ballcarriers have evaded UA tacklers all season.
“It starts at practice today,” Harris said Tuesday. “We need to come in practice and wrap up and make sure we do what we’re supposed to do, so we don’t have what happened to Utah happen again.”