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Arizona football notebook: Red zone defense, third down offense key to win streak

arizona-wildcats-football-notebook-red-zone-defensive-third-down-offense-ucla-colorado-pac12-2023 Arizona Athletics

A lot of things have to go right to beat ranked teams in three consecutive weeks, but success in some areas stand out from the pack. For Arizona, that has been its ability to convert on third down and keep its opponents from scoring in the red zone.

The Wildcats are ninth nationally in red zone defense, allowing scores on 71.4 percent (25 of 35) trips inside the red zone. They’s 17th-best in FBS on third down, converting 47.8 percent of the time.

Those rates are significantly better than in 2022, particularly the red zone defense, which was 99th at 87.7 percent and allowed the second-most touchdowns (45) in the country. This year opponents have gotten into the end zone just 18 times from within the 20.

Arizona allowed two scores on five defensive red zone possessions against UCLA, including a blocked field goal by Ephesians Prysock, a week after keeping Oregon State from scoring inside the 20 for the first time this season. During the 3-game win streak opponents are averaging 3.3 points per red zone trip.

“The first day of (fall) practice was red zone,” defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen said. “And ever since then, red zone has been part of our (week), we practice it every single day. If you’re going to be good at something you gotta practice it, and I think that we took that approach. When it comes to red zone we take pride in it.”

The red zone improvement has been there all season, with Arizona getting at least one stop in six of nine games. The same can’t be said for its effectiveness with the ball on third down, converting 33 percent of less three times during the first five games.

The last four: all 45.5 percent or better, including 68.8 percent (11 of 16) against UCLA. That’s the most in a game since 2019.

“It’s definitely the coaching,” quarterback Noah Fifita said. “I think our success has all been due to the time that they put in.”

QB coach/passing game coordinator Jimmy Doherty is Arizona’s third down guru, putting together presentations and breakdowns each week. That’s led to a 71.6 percent completion rate on third-down passes, including 77.8 percent on third and 7-9 yards, while run plays on third down are averaging 4.6 yards per carry with a 55 percent conversion rate on 3rd and short (1-3 yards).

“The guys have just taken to the details and being on their assignments and understanding exactly down and distance in the situation, knowing where the sticks are,” offensive coordinator Brennan Carroll said. “We’ve added a couple of wrinkles in there, we’ve been able to mix it up on third down, not just having to throw it every time.”

Arizona’s first drive of the second half against UCLA saw it run on 3rd and 6, with Jonah Coleman picking up eight to move the sticks. The Wildcats would end that drive with a field goal to go up two scores, and afterward Jedd Fisch said he was inspired to a call run by watching Auburn and Ole Miss play a few weeks earlier.

“Lane (Kiffin) and Hugh Freeze, both of which I respect offensively, I think they’re fantastic, were running the ball a lot more than I ever do on third down,” Fisch said. “And I said, I got to start thinking about this a little bit more, that maybe I’m missing something, maybe (I’m) a little bit too NFL-ized. In the NFL you just don’t run the ball on third and two-plus. But I just started looking at it more and more and just started believing in certain runs and certain concepts and it was a time we were able to hit the run and it was a great run by Jonah. Jonah made us look good on that one.”

The 7-year-connection

Fifita won his fourth Pac-12 Freshman of the Week award on Monday, picking up that honor in four of his five career starts. Asked if this all feels real, the redshirt freshman had to pause a moment before answering.

“It definitely is a blessing,” he said. “It’s been a great 5-week or so run, being able to just play, obviously winning, the most important part is being able to win. That’s been great getting bowl eligible. There’s been a lot a lot of dreams turning into reality. This is just the beginning.”

Fifita admits it was difficult being patient while waiting for his chance as Jayden de Laura’s backup, both last season and the first four games of 2023. But he feels the coaches that convinced him to come to Arizona have had his best interests in mind all along.

“I speak a lot about trust, there’s a lot of trust in this building,” he said. “And that’s something that my family kind of instilled in me growing up. Just trusting the process, trusting the people that are in this building. We have some great people in this building.”

Fifita’s first significant playing time of his career came in the fourth quarter at Stanford, when he relieved an injured de Laura and was 4 for 4. None of those passes were to best friend Tetairoa McMillan, but in his five starts T-Mac has been the target on more than 25 percent of his throws.

But that’s been the case for seven years, dating back to their first touchdown connection in eighth grade.

“Like it’s been the last seven years, I just throw to it and he makes me look good,” Fifita said. “Nothing’s changed in the past seven years. When you need to play to be made, I know wholeheartedly that he’s going to make it.”

Only one of Fifita’s four interceptions this season has come with T-Mac the intended target, that happening at USC. That he’s thrown four picks in five starts, including one on the first drive against UCLA, is a concern for him.

“I definitely got to be better on those,” he said. “I’m pretty much averaging an interception a game, so that’s something I definitely got to improve on. Definitely gotta change. And I think pretty much every interception up to this point has been on me. No tipped passes, no wrong routes, it’s all on me.”

Pulido’s solid return

Highly regarded offensive line recruit Raymond Pulido was all set to be Arizona’s starting right guard in the opener, then a bicycle accident 48 hours before kickoff scrapped that plan. The true freshman finally made his collegiate debut in Week 4 at Stanford, starting and playing 44 snaps before suffering another injury.

Pulido returned to action against UCLA, subbing in at right guard when starter Leif Magnuson was moved to left guard to fill in for an injured Wendell Moe. Moe later returned, with Magnuson and Pulido splitting the rest of the game at right tackle and Pulido logging 27 snaps.

“This role that he had this past week, I thought he did a solid job, kind of building on where he left off before the injuries,” Carroll said. “I would say Raymond’s probably gonna get a little more playing time this week.”

Magnuson, who has started the last five games at RG, logged his first snaps of his career at left guard with mixed results.

“He had a couple oopsies at the left spot, but it’s difficult from going right the whole time,” Carroll said. “All camp he had been really fighting for that right guard spot, and then had to flip over in the middle of the game because we had the most trust in him.”