Defensive line coach Iona Uiagalelei has simple instructions for his unit this week as it gets set to face Northern Arizona.
Get to the quarterback.
The Arizona Wildcats were nearly blanked in that department in their loss to Hawaii in Week 0, registering just one sack and one quarterback hit—and even those come with asterisks.
The “sack” was the result of the Hawaii QB falling to the ground in order to keep the clock running in the fourth quarter. The QB hit was flagged as roughing the passer.
With all day to throw, Hawaii’s quarterbacks shredded the UA secondary, which head coach Kevin Sumlin said was “not very good” in coverage, for 436 yards and five touchdowns.
“I think they just had a good game plan,” said UA edge defender Jalen Harris. “They were getting it out quick, and when they weren’t, their tackles did a good job of blocking.”
And maybe Arizona’s game plan wasn’t so great.
Sumlin acknowledged Monday that Arizona will have to make some schematic changes moving forward, though he did not commit to moving away from a three- or four-man rush.
“There’s ways to [create pressure] without bringing six or seven or five,” he said. “And when they go empty, there’s five receivers out there. You can do the math.”
In fairness, Hawaii’s success did not change a whole lot when Arizona rushed three as opposed to four or five. (However, the Wildcats did fare much better when they rushed six, albeit the sample size is very small):
Went thru every UH pass play v Arizona to gauge pass-def effectiveness by # of rushers:— Michael Lev (@MichaelJLev) August 31, 2019
3-man rush: 12 plays, 10-12 (83.3%), 86 yds, 1 TD, 1 INT
4: 23 plays, 16-23 (69.6%), 220 yds, 2 TD, 3 INT
5: 9 plays, 7-9 (77.8%), 112 yds, 2 TD
6: 5 plays, 1-4 (25%), 18 yds, 1 sack
Still, Harris said he is not as comfortable rushing in a three-man scheme since that means he often gets double teamed by a guard and tackle.
“I‘m not used to that, so that’s something I gotta work on,” he said.
Another possible solution to Arizona’s pass rushing woes? Using more players.
Per Harris, Uiagalelei said in meetings this week that more linemen need to be in the rotation. Six recorded a tackle in the loss to Hawaii, even though coaches said all throughout fall camp that the team has two, even three, viable groups of defensive linemen.
“Upfront we get gassed, so it’s better to have a rotation,” Harris said.
There is also the simple truth that Arizona’s pass rushers have to a better job of winning their matchups. Harris, regarded as UA’s top pass rusher, said he took the loss to Hawaii personally because he “felt like I didn’t do my job.”
“I think just in practice, we need to work on our craft more, work on our techniques and really make it a focus,” he said.
Arizona did generate six turnovers against Hawaii, including four interceptions, but it all went for naught because the Rainbow Warriors otherwise moved the ball with ease.
Hawaii went 5 for 10 on third downs, 2 for 3 on fourth down, and averaged 7.6 yards per play.
A poor pass rush has been a recurring problem for the Wildcats in recent years—Arizona was 104th in the country in sack percentage last season—but Harris was surprised by how ineffective they were against Hawaii.
“I think we were confident in our ability, but I think we did get too hyped and expecting more than what we got,” he said. “But we have high expectations and we just gotta bounce back, and we’ve just been practicing harder, ready for NAU to come in.”