Arizona sits at 4-3 entering its bye, a one-game improvement to the record from a year ago. But that only begins to tell the story of how much better the Wildcats are in 2023 compared to 2022, and it really comes down to one area.
“I went back and really looked at our team from (the first) seven games of a year ago to seven games now, and I can tell you the biggest difference is the defense,” UA coach Jedd Fisch said. “Our defense is playing at an elite level.”
Throwing around the E-word may be a bit much, but it’s not really that far off. Arizona ranks 32nd nationally in total defense, allowing 332.9 yards per game, and the 20.6 points yielded per contest ranks 37th in FBS. The Wildcats are 13th in defending the run, the 96 yards per game less than half what they allowed a year ago (209.1) when they ranked 124th out of 131 FBS schools.
The UA is in the top half in the Pac-12 every team defensive category, sitting third against the run and fourth overall. And that’s in a league with six of the top 30 offenses in the country.
Arizona has played two of them—No. 3 Washington and No. 9 USC—and while it lost to both it kept each from being as potent with the ball as normal. That was taken to another level in Saturday’s 44-6 win at Washington State when it held a team averaging 40 points and 469 yards to a single touchdown and 234 yards.
Cameron Ward failed to throw a TD pass for the first time this season, a feat matched by Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. while reigning Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams of USC had only one TD through the air.
Michael Penix Jr., Caleb Williams and Cameron Ward have combined to throw 57 touchdown passes this season.— Blair Willis (@BlairWillisUA) October 15, 2023
Against Arizona, they combined for only 1 passing TD.
hat’s been the secret? Sticking to the plan that has been in place from the start of Fisch’s tenure, which called for using his first full offseason (between the 2021 and 2022 seasons) overhauling the offense and this past offseason doing the same to the defense. The results of the offensive makeover were very evident, and now the defensive revamp is taking center stage.
Arizona brought in instant contributors to the defensive line and linebacker corps via the NCAA transfer portal, with 7.5 sacks and 16.5 tackles coming from those newcomers, while mixing them in with numerous second-year players who saw limited action in 2022 and are now part of the deep rotation.
The 19 sacks recorded is already three more than a year ago, and the UA is on pace for 77 tackles for loss in the regular season which would be its most since 2014.
The secondary didn’t get as many additions on the roster, but it did to the coaching staff in the form of assistants Duane Akina and John Richardson.
“I think adding Coach Akina and Coach Richardson has been enormous for our program,” Fisch said. “Those two guys have done an amazing job of coaching the corners and the secondary in total.”
Fisch said defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen uses his entire staff, including graduate assistants and analysts, to come up with a comprehensive scheme each week. Against Penix and Williams that involved going heavy on defensive backs, in a “dollar” package, while at Washington State the Wildcats brought back elements of the old “flex” defense that was a cornerstone of the Desert Swarm years.
“They gameplan together, they meet together,” Fisch said. “They really try to figure out the best way to stop an offense. When you look at the way that those guys are, that we’re defending the elite quarterbacks, I would say that’s really based upon the work that the defensive staff has done together.”
A year ago, Arizona allowed the most yards per play (6.59) in school history. That average is down 1.2 yards this fall, and after giving up 25 TD passes in 12 games in 2022 the first seven opponents have combined for just five.