The Arizona Wildcats have been blessed with great health on defense this season, with five players starting all 10 games and 21 defenders appearing in at least nine contests including everyone who has been in the starting lineup.
That personnel consistency hasn’t translated to successful performance, however. Arizona (4-6, 2-5 Pac-12) ranks last in the Pac-12 in total defense, scoring defense and defending the pass.
The Wildcats are also worst in the league in allowing long scrimmage plays, giving up 170 that have gone at least 10 yards, 59 of 20 or more yards and 30 of 30-plus yards. Those figures are all in the bottom 12 nationally.
A change at defensive coordinator two games ago hasn’t produced marked improvement on that unit because its biggest issue still remains: communication, or lack thereof.
Coach Kevin Sumlin cited communication issues on multiple occasions Monday when breaking down Arizona’s 34-6 loss at Oregon, its fifth straight after a 4-1 start. The Wildcats have allowed 223 points in those five games, and while the 34 given up to the Ducks was the fewest in that skid it could have been a lot less had Arizona’s defenders all been on the same page the whole night.
“Communication is something we can always work on,” linebacker Tony Fields II said. “The only way we can work on communication is communicating. Sadly to say, sometimes you’ve got to go through those problems to know what you need to over-communicate.”
Two plays from the Oregon game typified Arizona’s communication issues.
First was a 73-yard touchdown pass allowed on the second play from scrimmage, when Sumlin said two cornerbacks lined up on the same side of the field didn’t tell each other who they were going to cover depending on the routes run. That led to Oregon’s Johnny Johnson III having no Wildcat within 20 yards of him when he caught the pass and then breezed down the field.
The other was on a goal-line stand late in the first quarter, a drive that ended with the Ducks scoring on a short run a few plays after Arizona got flagged for having 12 men on the field … then running the next play with only 10 out there to defend.
“Ironically, with 10 guys on the field we had a tackle for loss,” Sumlin said.
Fields said the scheme Arizona used at the goal line was new for that game and a few guys didn’t know that was the defense they were playing.
“It’s football, things like that happen,” cornerback Jace Whittaker said. “You just try to limit when that happens and it doesn’t lead to explosive plays.”
Amazingly, the one place where Arizona’s defense has seemed to have the best communication this season has been up front. While the defensive line hasn’t been able to put up big numbers, particularly when it comes to pressuring opposing quarterbacks, the instances when they haven’t all been on the same page have been minimal.
And that’s with the Wildcats frequently rotating in fresh bodies in the trenches.
“We’ve always been pretty good, knowing where we need to line up,” defensive tackle Finton Connolly said. “It keeps us fresh, too.”