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Much-improved Arizona defense faces huge test at Oregon

arizona-wildcats-oregon-ducks-defense-rushing-brown-targeting-football-2021-pac12 Photo by Christopher Hook/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Arizona will be without two of its defensive starters for the first half of Saturday’s Pac-12 opener at Oregon, as both defensive end Mo Diallo and safety Jaxen Turner must sit out the first 30 minutes after being ejected for targeting against NAU.

Is Don Brown worried? Doesn’t seem like it.

“Next guy’s got to step up and do his job,” Brown said Tuesday. “It’s really not that big a deal, because we’re dividing reps (in practice) with ones and twos almost 50-50. That’s how we go about that.”

While Arizona’s offense has sputtered through the first three games, struggling to block and unable to find the right quarterback to lead it, the UA defense has operated almost seamlessly despite regularly rotating different players.

Fourteen Wildcats have started at least one game on defense, with 24 seeing at least 10 snaps.

And that rotation is paying off statistically. The UA is tied for second in the Pac-12 in tackles for loss, with 21, and are fifth in both yards allowed per game (342.7) and per play (5.19). The 1,028 yards allowed in the first three games are the fewest Arizona has yielded in a 3-game span since the 2017 season.

The Wildcats held NAU to 223 yards, the fewest allowed in a game since holding UTEP to 2018 in September 2017.

Brown said the NAU game had plenty of stats that “you can hang your hat on,” but because the game was still a loss that’s essentially worthless and means there are still ways to get better.

“It’s the life of a defensive coach,” he said.

Oregon will bring a whole new challenge for Arizona. The third-ranked Ducks run for more than 209 yards per game and are the only Pac-12 team yet to throw an interception.

The Ducks ran for 269 yards in an upset win at Ohio State in Week 2, prompting some on Twitter to compare when they were doing to the Buckeyes to what OSU had done to Michigan during Brown’s time there as defensive coordinator.

“That’ll present some challenges to us,” Brown said of Oregon’s offense. “The spread run game obviously conflicts you, but everybody’s running it now. It’s just the way of the world. We’ve just got to come up with a good plan and make sure our guys can execute it and be in good shape.”

The Wildcats have allowed 182 rushing yards per game, second-worst in the Pac-12, but their 17 TFLs on run plays are tied for the most in the conference.