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Arizona’s defense had a great debut, but the going will get much tougher

arizona-wildcats-football-mississippi-state-nau-gunner-maldonado-defense-offense-jedd-fisch-2023 Zachary BonDurant-USA TODAY Sports

With a revamped defense and a weapon-loaded offense, Arizona will look to keep up some things and fix others after its season-opening win over NAU.

UA was third-to-last in the Pac-12 last year in stopping the run. allowing 209.1 yards per game. But the enhanced size on the defensive line showed it had the capability of winning at the line of scrimmage, only allowing 78 rushing yards to NAU.

Winning at the line of scrimmage will help keep opponent offenses off the field. Saturday night, Arizona only allowed 264 total yards in the game, compared to an average of 468 yards per game last year.

“I gotta start first with Coach Johnny Nansen, Coach Akina and all the way down, all of our coaches are just harping on effort,” defensive back Martell Irby said. “Not something that you show one play or another play, but giving your all whether the ball’s coming to your side or across the field. I feel like throughout spring ball, throughout camp that’s something that was one of our main, main topics. And tonight that showed. We’re just going to continue to try and take it to the next level.”

It wasn’t all perfect for the Wildcats, as they averaged 5.4 penalties a game last year, ranking around the middle of the Pac-12. Saturday night, the UA had more than double that amount.

“I think tonight’s penalties were a little bit different because in scrimmages you don’t ever have like roughing the passer or those types of penalties,” head coach Jedd Fisch said. “So those aren’t ones that necessarily exist. I don’t think we had a holding penalty, but we definitely had way too many penalties, 11 penalties for (89) yards, a lot of that I think came with passion. But we’re gonna clean it up. We’re gonna get after that part of it for sure. And we can’t have, what, three or four personal fouls ... and then we had a couple of defensive offsides. We just can’t have that that’s not going to be a winning formula for us and we know that, and we will attack that as well.”

One of those penalties was a targeting call which will leave safety Gunner Maldonado out for the first half of next week’s game against Mississippi State.

“The call is the call, the call was the right call. I mean, it is what it is. We got to keep our head out of the game.” Fisch said.

On the offensive side of the ball, Arizona was able to stay ahead of the sticks and avoid going to third down against NAU, only attempting five third-down conversions compared to 12.25 attempts last year. If UA’s offense can sustain anywhere near averaging nine yards a play, as it did Saturday night, defenses will have their hands full with them.