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Arizona football notebook: Preparing for Washington’s air assault, fixing the 1st quarter offense, Tanner McLachlan’s hurdle instincts

arizona-wildcats-football-notebook-washington-huskies-defense-first-quarter-offense-tanner-mclachlan Photo by David Madison/Getty Images

Arizona has allowed 64 points over the first four games of the 2023 season. A year ago at this time, it had yielded 136, including 49 at Cal to open Pac-12 play.

But the Wildcats have yet to face a truly good offense. That will change on Saturday night when 7th-ranked Washington comes to Arizona Stadium.

The Huskies (4-0, 1-0 Pac-12) are scoring 49.8 points per game, third-best in FBS, and rank first nationally in passing (467.3 yards per game) and total offense (593.3). They also lead the country in plays of 20- (39) or 30-plus (23) yards and are second in red zone touchdowns (20).

“They score a lot of points,” UA defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen said. “Lot of yardage. We just (got to) try to do our job to make sure we don’t give up explosive plays, which is most of their offense. You look at their touchdowns, they’re airing it out, so if we can do a good job staying on top of those routes, that’ll help us.”

UW quarterback Michael Penix Jr. is throwing for 409 yards per game, with 16 TDs against two interceptions. Eleven of those TDs are in the red zone, but his 11.8 yards per attempt is tops in the country.

Three receivers have at least 20 catches, and two are averaging better than 20 yards per reception. Junior Rome Odunze and sophomore Ja’Lynn Polk have an average depth of target of more than 16 yards, an indication likes to go up top.

Nansen said Washington regularly changes formation, so it will be key for his defenders who get lined up properly and be on the look out for those top targets searching out matchup advantages.

“They do a lot of that,” he said. There’s unbalanced (sts), there’s quads, there’s empty. And they motion, they shift. Those (are the) sorts of things that we worry more than anything else. How are we going to adjust to it, make sure we don’t blow our assignments? We’re gonna have to match up personnel with their personnel. But most of the time we just play assignment, depending on what formation they give us.”

Getting pressure on the QB won’t be easy. Washington has allowed one sack on 153 dropbacks, and Penix has only had to throw under pressure less than 19 percent of the time.

“I think that’s just what goes into your preparation throughout the week,” defensive lineman Tyler Manoa said. “I know that’s something that our coaching staff preaches to us, that we have to have a good week of preparation so it can translate to the game.”

First quarter doldrums

Arizona hasn’t scored in the first quarter in the past three games, and since finding the end zone on the first drive of the season against NAU it has gone technically nine consecutive first-quarter drives without points. That doesn’t include possessions that begin in the first but finish in the second, when it scored TDs against NAU and UTEP.

UA coach Jedd Fisch said Monday it hasn’t been so much that the offense couldn’t move the ball, but rather couldn’t complete drives. After going 3-and-out to open at Stanford, the Wildcats’ second and third drives in the first quarter ended at the Cardinal 36- and 25-yard-line, respectively, as they opted to punt on the first one and turned it over on downs on the second.

“When you’re inside the 36 twice, you have to walk away with points,” he said.

Fisch wasn’t overly concerned, though, since Arizona is 3-1, and offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Brennan Carroll echoed that lack of worry.

“Losing is the worry,” Carroll said. “We’ve had a couple of drives that have ended up, where we started in the first quarter and we scored in the second quarter. Obviously we’d like to like score points early and score on every drive. That’s kind of our philosophy, we’d like to score every time. We’ll keep working on it.”

The UA has been outscored 17-7 in the first quarter this season, but on the flop side has outscored opponents 72-27 in the second half. In 2022, the Wildcats were plus-19 in the opening period but were minus-57 in the second half.

To hurdle or not to hurdle

Despite how it may seem when watching it live, Tanner McLachlan doesn’t spend his free time hurdling over furniture in his home.

Arizona’s gravity-defying tight end leaped over another unsuspecting defender in the win over Stanford, part of an 18-yard catch on the game-winning drive. He didn’t need to jump over anyone on his 36-yard TD reception in the second quarter.

McLachlan has had several hurdles in his 16 games with the UA, becoming his signature move. But he says it’s not one he ever plans ahead of time.

“It just happens,” he said. “There’s no real rhyme or reason to. I don’t go into a game thinking I’m going to do it. You’ve got a split second to make a decision. I don’t know what I see, it just comes natural.”

Carroll called McLachlan’s leaps “exciting” but there’s also concern for ball security, since when in the air the chances of someone poking the ball away is higher. McLachlan is well aware of that.

“If I leave my feet, Coach (Paopao) says I’m on my own,” he said. “Gotta live with the consequences.”