No one will ever confuse Don Brown with Dick Vermeil, but even he couldn’t contain his emotions talking about Arizona finally ending its long losing streak.
“I get choked up thinking about it: 700-plus days,” Brown said Tuesday. “I mean, damn. And we got an effort like that? The game of football introduces a man to himself, for sure. Happy for the guys. I’m probably more happy for the type of guys that have been there the whole time. I mean, that’s toughing it out.”
Brown, in his first season as Arizona’s defensive coordinator, has transformed that unit into one of the best in the Pac-12 as well as in the upper half of FBS. The Wildcats rank fourth in the conference in total defense, which would be their highest finish since 2010, and their No. 44 national rank in total defense would be their best since finishing 32nd in 2009.
A year ago the UA was last in the Pac-12 and 116th out of 127 teams that played during the COVID season, and in 2019 were 12th and 120th, respectively.
Eleven of the 18 players who have started on defense this season were part of those previous units, ones that played a very different style than the one Brown employs—and which he believes is the only way to do it.
“There’s a 100 ways to do it,” Brown said. “I just don’t believe there’s 100 ways to do it, I think there’s one way to do it and that’s the way I roll. They’ve played defense here very different than the way they’re playing it now. So, they haven’t had a whole lot of choice as to how we’re gonna go.”
Arizona had four sacks in Saturday’s 10-3 win over Cal, the second time that’s happened in the last three games (after going 25 games since the last 4-sack performance). It also had eight have tackles for loss for the third time this season as well as nine quarterback hurries.
“If we’re not doing those things, I shouldn’t be here,” Brown said. “That’s kind of an important piece, and we’re starting to see that on a week in, week out basis.”
Brown said the first time he saw his guys were “getting it” was ahead of the NAU game, which despite resulting in an embarrassing home loss to an FCS school saw the defense allow only 223 yards and 14 points.
“But really, I thought ... probably Washington was the day we at least we showed the potential that we could play that type of style,” he said. “The question we had to prove, we could do it for 60 minutes.”
Arizona allowed just 122 yards to Cal a week after being torched for a season-worst 517 by USC (but only 157 in the second half, when it yielded only two field goals. The Wildcats have gone six quarters without giving up a touchdown, which last happened in 2012-13 when it blanked Nevada in the fourth quarter of the 2012 New Mexico Bowl then began 2013 with a shutout of NAU and held UNLV scoreless in the first quarter on the road.
“We’re certainly on an upward trend,” Brown said. “I still think there’s a lot of improvement that we can still squeeze out. But that particular game right there, it’s hard to find fault with the way the guys played.”
Some very tough tests remain for that group. This week’s opponent, Utah, is 15th nationally in rushing, then Arizona faces the No. 2 passing attack in the Pac-12 in Washington State before finishing against an ASU team that is 24th in FBS on the ground and has four players with more rushing yards than anyone on the Wildcats.
“We got three big weeks ahead of us, we’re playing two nationally ranked run games and a pretty good throw game in Washington State,” Brown said. “So we got a lot of stuff in front of us. If we don’t to pay attention to Utah, the way they run the ball and the way they played last week, I mean, we got to learn from that and have a good plan for it. I liked our start (at practice) on Sunday, for sure.”