Sure, turning the ball over seven times, including twice on muffed punts, has gone a long way toward the final score of the Arizona Wildcats’ last two games. But those are one-off mistakes, the kind that are just as much the product of luck as execution.
The same can’t be said for how Arizona’s offensive and defensive line have performed. There’s not much luck involved in regularly getting to the quarterback or being able to keep your passer from running for his life.
Arizona’s offensive line the last two games—in which it has played without left guard Robert Congel both times and without right guard Cody Creason at USC—has allowed 11 sacks. That’s four more than the Wildcat defense has managed for the entire season, with no more than two in any contest.
So much for the trenches on both sides of the ball being a strength for Arizona this season.
“We’ve got to take more ownership of our D-line and get to the quarterback,” said redshirt sophomore edge Jalen Harris, who has half of Arizona’s team sacks.
Arizona’s seven sacks are four fewer than any other Pac-12 team and is tied for seventh-worst among FBS teams. The six schools with fewer QB takedowns have a combined record of 6-36.
“Numbers don’t lie,” said defensive lineman JB Brown. “We have to be better.”
That lack of an effective pass rush could be contributing to the offensive line’s inability to protect the QB, particularly when it comes to blitzing. Since Pac-12 play has begun the opponents are blitzing on the regular, and against Washington and Stanford those blitzes were getting home far too often.
And every foe from here on out figures to take the same approach, center Josh McCauley said.
“Once you show you struggle with something every team is going to try and do that,” he said. “We gotta be able to fix that quick and be ready for Stanford and Oregon State and whoever else we have left.”
McCauley said the recent line shuffling—which has seen Paiton Fears go from splitting time with Edgar Burrola at right tackle to start at left guard while Bryson Cain has taken over at right guard—has had some impact on the blitz issues but the real culprit is everyone being on the same page.
“Communication, that’s something I think could be improved,” McCauley said. “Identifying who we have, making it clear for the running back who they have, and making sure the communication is all good from that aspect. I feel like it could be better, there’s definitely been some challenges but it could be better.”
Also hurting Arizona’s offensive line is its tempo, McCauley said. Because Arizona usually tries to play fast that means there’s less time seeing what the defense is planning to do before the snap. To counter this, sometimes Khalil Tate or Grant Gunnell will clap a few beats before McCauley hikes it.
“It gets them to kind of show their hand,” McCauley said of the clapping. “Gives us a look, see what they’re trying to do. Sometimes they check out of that, sometimes they roll with that. If we’re going tempo and they can’t always change what they’re going to do, yeah, it really helps.”
Brown said Arizona does a blitz period during the week and his unit gets to the QB on occasion while the O-line stops the rush just as often. He said he noticed USC disguised its blitzes a lot last week, something the Wildcats could try in practice to help their offensive counterparts.
“I believe we can do the same as well, at practice, to give (the offensive line) a good look,” Brown said.