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Arizona trying to shore up third-down defense

Wildcats’ opponents converting on 44.2 percent of third downs this season

NCAA Football: Southern Utah at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, the Arizona Wildcats focused on generating explosive plays on offense, and it paid off, as Khalil Tate completed passes for 75, 65, 55 and 53 yards in a 62-31 rout vs. Southern Utah.

This week, they are hoping to fix another weakness: third-down defense. Opponents have converted on 23 of 52 third downs against Arizona this season, a 44.2 percent clip. That ranks 109th in the FBS. There are only 130 teams.

“We have not met our goal on defense,” Coach Kevin Sumlin said Monday at his weekly press conference. “That needs to be around 35 percent or lower and we haven’t done that.”

Not only that, Arizona has gotten progressively worse. BYU was 5-for-12 on third down, Houston was 8-for-18 and Southern Utah, an FCS team, was 10-for-22. Opponents are 3-for-5 on fourth down against the Wildcats, too.

It’s a big reason they are 1-2 heading into Saturday’s Pac-12 opener at Oregon State.

“You go back and look at even the first game, there were some critical third downs that BYU made that kept drives alive and really made the difference in the game,” Sumlin said. “We’re looking at that plan, we’ve talked about it, what that looks like is different for different teams but the bottom line is we haven’t hit our goals in third-down conversion rate on defense against opponents, and that’s kept them on the field and allowed them to score points. It all goes hand in hand. Is it third and short? Is it third and long? Is it third and medium? It’s been all three. That’s something we’re working hard to shore up.”

This isn’t a new problem. In defensive coordinator Marcel Yates’ first two seasons at Arizona opponents converted on 47 and 52 percent of third downs, respectively. The last time Arizona held its opponents’ third-down conversion rate under 40 percent was in 2013. Before that it was 2009.

Pressuring the quarterback in those situations is paramount, but Arizona has not done that all season. The defense was held without a sack until Week 3, when it recorded two against Southern Utah.

The defensive line has struggled to collapse the pocket, and Arizona usually only rushes three or four on third downs, which exacerbates the problem. Plus, Arizona has been without star cornerback Jace Whittaker virtually all season, so the coverage downfield has not been as it tight as it could be.

Sumlin said last week that Arizona’s improvement defensively comes down to “schematics” such as altered play-calling or different rotations — Arizona subbed in more players against Southern Utah — but linebacker Anthony Pandy and safety Jarrius Wallace think the Wildcats need to be more physical.

“It’s just a mindset because we have the best strength coaches in the country right now,” said Pandy, who was responsible for Arizona’s first sack. “We just have to play more physical and want it more.”

“We’re going to be more physical coming up,” assured Wallace, whose interception against Southern Utah was Arizona’s first takeaway of the season. “We’re going to emphasize that in practice this week and the next game for sure we’re going to be a physical defense that causes havoc.”