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Arizona defense trending in wrong direction as tackling problems mount

arizona-wildcats-football-defense-tackling-rushing-cal-golden-bears-ndsu-bison-pac12-2022 Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Late in the third quarter, with Cal on the move, Arizona’s defense was tasked with keeping the contest a one-possession game.

The Golden Bears were humming offensively, having gone 87 yards in eight plays for a touchdown on the previous drive. Now they were back in the red zone looking to push their lead to double digits.

With the ball on Arizona’s 18-yard line and a fresh set of downs, the Bears did what they had done a dozen times prior: hand the ball off to running back Jaydn Ott.

Ott slipped to the outside, then cut inside where he was faced with insurmountable opposition. Five white helmets descended on the true freshman. Ott got stood upright, conceded a step and then lowered his body back to the end zone.

Just when it appeared that an Arizona defender would drag the running back to the ground for a medium gain carry, Ott bulldozed his way backward and broke out of the scrum with the help of some offensive linemen. As soon as Ott got loose, he turned around and ran into the end zone unscathed.

The play encapsulates Arizona’s struggles in the tackling department this season, and the issue only seems to be getting worse.

Arizona’s tackling grade has dropped with each game played, according to Pro Football Focus, with Saturday’s grade of 42.8 well below PFF’s base level for a “replaceable” unit. The Wildcats missed 17 tackles against Cal, five more than they missed the week before against North Dakota State.

“We got to make tackles,” Arizona coach Jedd Fisch said matter-of-factly. “I wouldn’t use the words poor efforts. I just haven’t seen enough of it to make a decision on why, or to be able to determine what happened.”

Arizona defensive lineman Kyon Barrs agreed that it isn’t a matter of effort.

“I wouldn’t say giving up on plays,” Barrs said. “Just poor tackling.”

Barrs said that the defense was prepared but didn’t execute assignments the way it was supposed to.

Despite the purported effort and preparation, Arizona looked caught off-guard from the opening drive. On the second play from scrimmage, Ott broke loose for a 73-yard TD. Fittingly, Ott sealed the game with a 72-yard run to the end zone in the fourth quarter.

In all, Cal ransacked Arizona’s defense for 599 yards. The Wildcats conceded 9.31 yards per carry, the worst single-game rush defense average in school history.

Ott’s 274 rushing yards were the most by an FBS player this season. Ott’s yardage was the most ever by a Pac-12 true freshman.

As ugly as the defense looked Saturday, the tackling problems are not as widespread as they appear. Of the 17 missed tackles, nine belonged to four players: Christian Young, Hunter Echols, Jerry Roberts and Kolbe Cage.

Several members of Arizona’s defense performed quite well against Cal. Six players had PFF grades above 70, led by cornerbacks Isaiah Rutherford and Treydan Stukes.

The Arizona staff needs to spend this week getting the rest of the defense up to speed on fundamentals before the Wildcats face the Pac-12 murderer’s row of Oregon, Washington, USC and Utah.

“I believe there’s a process always, and the process comes during the week I practice,” Barrs said. “So we just got to execute at practice, come this week ready to work and just come out Saturday. We’re over it already. It’s time to lock in and get ready for Colorado.”