The Arizona Wildcats learned something about their defense in their win over Northern Arizona.
“You just see how good we can be, and then how bad we can also be,” said senior safety Tristan Cooper.
The Wildcats held the Lumberjacks to 13 points, 189 yards and a 40 percent success rate on third down in the first half. They also got an interception from Jace Whittaker.
The second half? NAU tallied 28 points, 253 yards, and went a perfect 5 for 5 on third down. Sure, the Wildcats played several second- and third-stringers in the final two quarters, but that is still no excuse to struggle against an FCS team.
“I’m sure it surprised all of us,” said junior linebacker Tony Fields II. “We’re just getting started, though, so that’s the blessing in it. We still have a lot of time to fix our little bumps and bruises.”
Little being the key word. Cooper believes minor things are contributing to Arizona’s struggles, echoing head coach Kevin Sumlin, who Monday said communication and players being out of position are the driving forces behind UA’s woes.
If a lack of talent is the problem, no one is willing to admit it.
“Sometimes people will have their eyes in the backfield,” Cooper said. “And there’s these plays I’m in man-to-man and I’m looking in the backfield. Once we fix all those things, people stay in their gaps, people hit the right gaps, we’re going to be OK.”
Cooper and cornerback Lorenzo Burns said the Wildcats got complacent against NAU too. They held a 51-13 lead at halftime, only to be outscored 28-14 in the final two quarters.
“In the locker room, people were like, ‘okay, we pretty much won’ at halftime,” Cooper said. “And I even felt it too. I was like ‘dang, why do I feel like this game’s over with?’ We’re about to go home and I’m about to see my family. You know, you loosen up a little bit. You lose lose track of focus. But you see how good we can be in the first half.”
Yet, that half was the only time the Wildcats have been somewhat cohesive on defense this season, making it look more like an anomaly than of what’s to come.
Cooper said the Texas Tech game, which will pit Arizona against another offense capable of putting up big numbers through the air, is a chance to prove themselves.
“We got our warmup game (against Hawaii), we got our emotions out (against NAU), and now it’s time for business for Texas Tech,” he said. “We’re not respected. I understand we lost to Hawaii, shouldn’t have lost to Hawaii, we beat NAU but we gave up 40 points, so a lot of people don’t respect us. I understand it, but we’re gonna have to make them feel it this game. I pray that everything goes to plan and we have a great game plan and players do what we gotta do, and we come out with the W.”
Not even Sumlin seems to have much faith in his defense containing Texas Tech’s high-octane passing offense, conceding that stops for both teams could be at a premium.
“Oh well,” Cooper said. “Hopefully we can prove to our coach and their coach that our defense is ready and it has been improved.”
Not only could bowl eligibility be on the line Saturday—a 1-2 start would be incredibly difficult for Arizona to overcome—so too could defensive coordinator Marcel Yates’ job. The embattled coach has drawn ire from fans on social media ever since the Wildcats surrendered 45 points in the loss to Hawaii.
It’s not totally unwarranted, either. The Wildcats have yet to show any marked improvement over his four-year tenure as defensive coordinator.
Cooper is aware of the vitriol toward Yates, but does his best to tune it out.
“I’ve told a lot of my teammates if you let words bother you in this type of stage, you’re in for a rough life,” he said. “Before the game, I was like, ‘you know, it’s just funny. There’s a lot of outside noise and it’s just the same people that are talking mess about us today are going to be on our bandwagon after we beat Texas Tech. You can’t please everybody. If you try to be a people pleaser, you’re going to be miserable. So I don’t really care, honestly. I mean, if it happens, if he gets fired, he gets fired. But I know he’s gonna find another job and hopefully he doesn’t get fired because we like him a lot.”
If there were ever a time to make a change at defensive coordinator, it would be after a loss to Texas Tech, should it come to that. The Wildcats have a bye next week, meaning the new defensive coordinator, whoever it may be, would have additional time to try to straighten things out.
But Yates is the same guy who several UA players endorsed for the head coaching job a couple years ago, and they are willing to go to war for him this time too.
“I just know that we got Coach Yates’ back and he’s got ours,” Burns said.
Added Cooper: “I think we just gotta go out there as a whole and be more confident in ourselves and talk to each other. You know, no blown assignments, people need to trust in their technique. And I just feel like once we get our chemistry together, and we start doing what the coaches tell us and we start trusting in the process, everything will be good.”