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Arizona football: Defensive improvement very noticeable through first 3 games

arizona-wildcats-football-defense-recap-nonconference-improvement-jacob-manu-justin-flowe-2023 Arizona Athletics

Arizona heads into Pac-12 play with the same record as it did a year ago, going 2-1 with victories over an FCS school and a mid-major and a loss to an SEC opponent. The Wildcats are averaging 31 points per game, about their pace from a year ago, and the raw offensive numbers are pretty similar to the ones put up in 2022.

The UA defense, on the other hand. Well that’s a horse of a different color.

Though one-fourth of the 2023 season, Arizona has shown marked improvement on the side of the ball that was a major flaw last year. The Wildcats are giving up 14.7 points per game, which is tied with Alabama and Texas for 27th nationally, and the 301.0 yards per game allowed is 42nd out of 133 FBS schools.

The 903 yards allowed is the fewest over a 3-game span since 2010.

Sure, the overall competition it has faced to this point is nothing compared to what lies ahead in the Pac-12, where after Saturday’s opener at Stanford there are seven consecutive opponents currently ranked in the Associated Press Top 25. But that doesn’t lessen how noticeably better that unit has been.

“I think our defense is really stepping up,” UA coach Jedd Fisch said after Saturday’s 31-10 win over UTEP. “And that comes down to communication, that comes down to the amount of time that is spent walking through plays, practicing, the preparation involved. The coaches have done a tremendous job.”

It’s been a long time since has had a defensive stretch like this, regardless of opponent. The 44 points Arizona has yielded so far are the fewest in a 3-game span since giving up 26 in the first three games of the 2013 season. That UA team went on to finish 8-5, allowing 24.2 points per game, the lowest scoring average over the last 12 full seasons.

Arizona gave up 36.5 points per game last year, second-most in school history, and the 6.59 yards per play allowed in 2022 was worst all-time.

This year, so far, it’s 4.83. That would be the best by a UA defense since 2000.

From an individual standpoint, linebackers Jacob Manu (27) and Justin Flowe (25) sit first and second in the Pac-12 in tackles through three games. Flowe, who only played 11 defensive snaps in the season opener against NAU, had 12 tackles at Mississippi State (in only 27 snaps) before getting 10 against UTEP in his first start with the Wildcats.

The last Arizona player to lead the Pac-12 in tackles was Scooby Wright III, who had 163 over 14 games in 2014. The last to have 100 or more in a season was Colin Schooler (119) in 2019.

Manu also leads the UA in tackles for loss (4.0) and sacks (2.5), but Arizona’s ultra-deep offensive line is also chipping in with 3.5 sacks and 10.5 TFL. The D-line produced just 30 TFL last season, when three players were on the field for at least 65 percent of the snaps, but this year so far no lineman has had to play more than 48 snaps in a game.

Will these numbers continue at this pace? Highly unlikely, considering five of Arizona’s Pac-12 opponents are averaging 40 points per game and four are gaining more than 500 yards per contest.

But based on how the defense has looked so far, this could be the first time in nine years Arizona doesn’t allow 30 points per game for a season.