The Arizona Wildcats overhauled their defense this offseason but appear to be ahead of the curve after a mostly solid performance against BYU. They held the Cougars to 24 points and 368 yards, good enough to give them a chance to win.
“My assessment is we ran to the ball pretty darn well for the first time out, which usually correlates that the guys have a clue what they’re doing, so that was a positive,” defensive coordinator Don Brown said.
Brown cited Pro Football Focus stats that said Arizona had the fourth-fewest missed tackles in the country. The analytics site also gave the Wildcats a 73.0 tackling grade, which is better than any mark they posted last season under the previous coaching staff.
“Some other things—we had eight [tackles for loss]. We had three knockdowns, I thought they did a decent job of moving the pocket when trying to get away from us,” Brown said. “Third-down conversions, they were 4 for 12, which is kind of a good number. We’re looking for 70%. That’s 67%.
“Tre Hayward had 10 tackles. (Anthony) Pandy, I thought he played pretty good for his first go round and, really, with limited practice time. Up front, I thought we competed hard. We played well. (Kyon) Barrs, who had missed some time, had his first sack as a collegian. (Trevon) Mason certainly ran to the ball well. He did some good things for us up front. I thought our secondary played pretty darn well. You take out—which you can’t—but you take out the one explosive pass play, we’re somewhere around 130 (yards). Plus, we had four pass breakups.”
Brown is still lamenting the 39-yard quarterback scramble and 67-yard TD pass that Arizona gave up. Head coach Jedd Fisch said after the game that the deep ball was the result of miscommunication. Brown otherwise thought his unit was in sync despite all the new schemes and players it debuted.
“We’ve been fighting for our lives trying to get everybody ready, that’s all I can tell you,” he said. “I thought for the most part our communication was really good. But at the same time...we gotta execute better. We’ve got to line up better. Those are all things probably everybody in the country is saying today. With that being said, nobody cares that we have this many guys that we’re breaking in. We just have to go out there and compete and play hard and try to minimize error and execute at a high level.”
The pass rush certainly has room to improve. Despite Brown’s penchant for blitzing, the Wildcats only generated one sack and five QB pressures. Brown noted that Arizona was missing some key members of the front seven—Wisconsin transfer linebacker Malik Reed and defensive tackle Tank Wilson being among those who didn’t play—but he expects some to suit up against San Diego State.
“I thought we set the edge OK,” Brown said. “We had two scenarios that we got to do a better job. We got to make sure from the second and third level that we’re racing the alley. And also we got to make sure we put the guys in the right position so they can impact the alley.”
BYU rushed for 161 yards on 34 carries against Arizona, a decent 4.7 yards per rush. Brown expects his defense’s physicality to be tested again by the Aztecs on Saturday. SDSU rushed for 248 yards in a 28-10 win over New Mexico State last weekend.
“Their offensive line is probably one of their strengths...and you gotta stop the run,” Brown said. “You want to beat this club, you gotta get your nose dirty.”