Arizona pulled out a joker to handle San Diego State’s run-heavy offense, but to beat Mike Leach’s air attack it’s going to need a whole deck of wild cards.
Defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen regularly used five defensive linemen in the season opener, part of a package called “Joker” that was meant to plug up run lanes and stifle SDSU’s mobile quarterback. Don’t expect to see much of that in Saturday’s home opener against a Mississippi State offense that threw for 450 yards in its first game.
“When you go against (Leach’s) offense you got to try to match him for their personnel,” Nansen said, indicating that more defensive backs are likely going to be the solution. “We’re still working on it.”
Leach, in his third season at MSU after eight seasons at Washington State, is running pretty much the same Air Raid offense he did in going 5-2 against Arizona that included 79 pass attempts in a 59-37 home loss to the UA in 2014 and 84 (along with 602 passing yards) in a 2017 loss in Tucson.
But now he’s doing it with much better players at his current SEC school than he could get to come to Pullman. MSU led FBS in completion percentage (73.6) last season, and junior quarterback Will Rogers was 38 of 49 (77.6 percent) against Memphis to open this season.
Arizona held SDSU to 62 passing yards last week, the fewest it has allowed since 2010. MSU threw for 68 yards on its first drive.
“We went from a running team to now to a passing team, so it’s a totally different game now,” Nansen said. “So we just got to do a great job preparing our guys.”
Nansen said recognizing formations, disrupting the quarterback and—most importantly—tackling are key to handling the Bulldogs’ offense. Pro Football Focus gave Arizona a 61.7 tackling grade against SDSU, which ranked 74th out of 131 FBS schools; the Wildcats were tagged for 12 missed tackles.
“That’s the plan, today and tomorrow’s practice, focus on tackling,” Nansen said.
Against Memphis, Rogers completed passes to 12 different targets including three running backs, with nine eight Bulldogs catching three or more passes. He was only pressured eight times on 52 dropbacks, compared to 13 pressures that Jayden de Laura felt on 36 dropbacks.
That means the defensive line, though its primary assignment on pass plays will be to disrupt the passer, the job won’t end once the ball is thrown.
“Never just turn around and watch the ball, always run to the ball,” defensive tackle Kyon Barrs said. “Because anything can happen, the ball can come out. We got to get around there. Not just them, (against) any team we’ve got to gang tackle. It’s called Desert Swarm, so that’s we got to do as all 11 on defense.”
Arizona’s defense was only on the field for 59 plays last week, partly due to the offense’s ability to hold onto the ball and own time of possession. The Wildcats regularly subbed on D, with 16 players getting 10 or more snaps.
It may not be as easy to sub against MSU, which ran 83 plays in its opener and often keeps the same personnel on the field when the clock is moving.
“We got to do a great job of managing our substitutions,” Nansen said. “I’m just trying to get time to rest some of the players that are on the field and also give you time to process information and have formations and things like that to make the right call.”