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Jedd Fisch on Arizona’s defensive struggles: ‘The Pac-12 is about scoring and quarterbacks’

He’s not wrong

arizona-wildcats-football-jedd-fisch-defense-scoring-offense-pac12-national-rankings-recruiting Photo by Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As Arizona’s offense continues to move up the national rankings, the other side of the ball is on a collision course for the bottom.

The Wildcats rank 25th in FBS in total offense and eighth in passing, producing the most pass plays of 20 or more yards in the country. But at the same time, the UA defense has dropped to 119th or worse (out of 131 schools) in the following categories:

  • 454.1 yards per game (119th)
  • 207.4 rushing yards per game (T-119th)
  • 36.3 points per game (121st)
  • 74.19 red zone TD percentage (123rd)
  • 161.19 quarterback rating (124th)
  • 27 tackles for loss (126th)
  • 6.94 yards per play (127th)
  • 5.81 yards per rush (128th)
  • 71.2 completion percentage (130th)

Those numbers aren’t just bad on a national level, several would be the worst in school history if the season ended now. The 2011 UA team that went 2-10 (and fired Mike Stoops halfway through) allowed 6.58 yards per game and a 65.9 percent completion rate, while the 1958 squad gave up 5.3 yards per rush.

A few more 500-yard, 49-point games, which has happened in all three Pac-12 losses, and the 499 yards per game allowed in 2012 and the 38.3 points per game yielded in 2016 (Rich Rodriguez’s only losing season) could also be broken.

So, what is Arizona going to do about its terrible defense? Sounds like not too much, at least for the rest of this season.

“Going into the bye week, we’ll continue to evaluate where we’re at as a team and make the necessary adjustments that we can make at this point in time,” UA coach Jedd Fisch said Monday. “We’ve got to find a way to score a few more points than the next team. But I think in the end, we got to get better on all three phases this bye week, we’ve got to focus in on getting some more stops on defense. Preventing scoring on defense, got to bring the points down.”

Easier said than done, as Fisch noted the Pac-12’s top-ranked defense (UCLA) is 35th nationally, and nine of the schools are outside the top 50.

Arizona’s 466th yards per game, its highest average since 2017, is 25th nationally but only sixth in the Pac-12, and it’s one of seven schools in the league scoring at least 31 points per game. And nine Pac-12 passers are averaging 250 yards per game—none did in 2021—to account for 18 percent of FBS QBs at that number or above.

“Seems like right now that’s what the Pac-12 is about,” he said. “We’ve got some great offense right now. The Pac-12 is about scoring and quarterbacks. We’re very fortunate to have the one we have.”

Nearly half of FBS is averaging 30 points per game, 52 of them (including Arizona) doing so against FBS opponents, and 37 are giving up 30 or more per contest.

“I think kind of that’s what college football is looking like right now as well,” Fisch said. “When you look out there and you see Tennessee-Alabama, you see 52-49. You look out there and you see Oklahoma versus Kansas and you see ... 52-42. Michigan ran for (418) yards against Penn State. You look at the USC-Utah game was 43-42. I just think college football right now, for the most part, a lot of teams are playing a lot of good offenses. And offenses are doing a good job of scoring points.”

Fisch said that makes it fun for offensive play callers, such as himself, but “challenging” for defensive coordinators like first-year UA playcaller Johnny Nansen. That the rules seem to favor offense doesn’t make it any easier.

“I think 20 hours a week to prepare is very challenging on defenses,” he said. “You have a lot of different formations you can throw at teams on offense. In pro football you don’t have those same formations that you can use, all the unbalanced sets are very different. You have a ton of space with the way the hash marks are set up in college football. You have the RPO game, which is officiated a little bit different in college football, and you ... have a lot of kids that are great athletes playing quarterback.

“Defensively, you have to adjust all the time. You have to actually defend all that. And that becomes a challenge. And I think that’s what’s kind of happening a little bit. Tackling is less than less going on in training camp. There’s a lot of awareness of (minimizing practice in) full pads and how you prepare.”

Arizona made some changes to the defensive starting lineup against Washington, resulting in DJ Warnell and Jacob Manu leading the team in tackles in their new roles. But the Wildcats don’t appear to have many other options on the roster, so bigger fixes will have to wait until the offseason.

The 2023 recruiting class has 13 commitments (out of 18 total) on defense, and one of its top remaining targets is 4-star California LB Leviticus Su’a, who visited campus in June the same weekend as seven of those 2023 UA commits.

Fisch—who will be on the recruiting trail this weekend along with his entire coaching staff—said defensive players Arizona is pursuing could make instant impacts the way the UA’s offensive newcomers have this fall.

“If you’re a defensive player, you have an opportunity to come in here and compete and start right away,” he said. “We have a lot of veteran players on the defensive side, so you have opportunity in that regard to make kind of the same impact that our offensive guys made this past offseason. If you look at our game against Washington a year ago, there was not one player that touched the ball against Washington in 2021 that was on the field in 2022. Not one skill player.”