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Arizona football notebook: On first down efficiency and preparing for Mississippi State’s schemes

arizona-wildcats-football-mississippi-state-bulldogs-first-down-offense-defense-scheme-notebook Photo by Christopher Hook/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Arizona ran only 53 offensive plays in its season-opening win over NAU, the second-fewest of the Jedd Fisch era. But the Wildcats averaged more than nine yards per play, which ranks fifth in the country after one week, so they made the most of those seemingly fewer opportunities.

The key against NAU, and apparently since the start of last season, has been production on first down.

Of those 53 plays, 32 of them came on first down, and on those first down snaps the UA averaged 12.4 yards while generating more than 83 percent of its total yardage. And this isn’t just a one-game trend.

According to SportsSourceAnalytics, Arizona has been the most effective team in FBS on first down since the start of the 2022 season.

Solid play calling is only part of the equation, though.

“I think it’s just the kind of guys that we have that know how to make explosive plays,” receiver Jacob Cowing said. “The yards after catch with the ball in your hands. It’s not really just based on the play call, it’s the players that we have.”

Of the 478 yards Arizona gained against NAU, 357 came either after a catch was made or following initial contact for a ball carrier. The running backs averaged nearly four yards after contact, while all eight pass catchers combined to average more than 10 yards after hauling in a reception.

That includes 120 YAC from running backs Michael Wiley and Jonah Coleman, who combined for nine receptions. Coleman had a 37-yard catch that set up Arizona’s first touchdown, while Wiley had three catches for 10-plus yards that all began behind the line of scrimmage.

“It was a huge emphasis to get our running backs the ball in a number of ways,” offensive coordinator Brennan Carroll said. “I don’t see that changing. They play downfield, break tackles, so that will continue.”

Wiley is up to 101 receptions for his career, three off the UA record for a full-time running back. Vance Johnson had 104 catches from 1981-84.

A new-look Mississippi State offense

Speaking of running backs who catch the ball, Mississippi State’s co-leading receiver in its 48-7 win over SE Louisiana was Jo’Quavious Marks, who in the previous three seasons had 191 receptions. But Marks also ran the ball 19 times for 127 yards and two TDs, becoming the Bulldogs’ first 100-yard rusher since November 2019.

MSU ran for 298 yards, their biggest ground production in nearly four years, while calling more run plays than pass plays for the first time since late 2019.

The 2019 season was the last one that didn’t have Mike Leach as the Bulldogs’ head coach. He passed away suddenly in December, with defensive coordinator Zach Arnett coaching the team in its bowl game before getting the full-time gig.

Arnett and new offensive coordinator Kevin Barbay, who was the OC at Appalachian State last season, have put their stamp on an attack that under Leach had been known for a lot of passing.

“Totally different,” UA defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen said. “It’s more a focus of running the football. “That’s the main focus for us is to stop the run. We start practice that way, we start meetings that way. That’s the number one priority on defense.”

Arizona held NAU to 78 rushing yards, 3.8 per play, but that was against an offensive line that averaged 278 pounds. Mississippi State’s starting O-line averages 310.

Big test for the defense

Arizona’s revamped defense passed its first assignment, but the level of difficulty goes up increasingly with the second game. Throw in the heat and humidity of playing in the South in early September, and staying fresh will be key to the Wildcats’ success.

Ten defensive linemen got snaps against NAU, with nine playing 15 or more snaps but not logging more than 48 (out of 72 for the game). Just as Nansen likes it.

“That’s about the right number,” he said. “Certain guys are playing in certain third down roles. Some guys are playing when they’re in 12 personnel, with big bodies in there.”

Redshirt freshman Isaiah Ward shined in his first start in the KAT position, with more than half of his 47 snaps as a pass rusher, while sophomore Ta’ita’i Uiagalelei had the third-most run defense snaps of the linemen despite not starting but also had 17 pass rush snaps and one time when he was in coverage against a tight end.

“Ta’ita’i gives us the flexibility to play outside and inside,” Nansen said. “Ward, he’s just got that motor. He plays hard every play.”

The interior defenders will have to be huge, both literally and figuratively, against MSU’s sizable line in order to slow the run game.

“If it wasn’t for those two inside guys, some of these plays wouldn’t be made,” Nansen said. “They’re always getting credit in our eyes, maybe not in the stats but in our eyes.”

A second look at a unique scheme

Mississippi State is one of a select number of FBS teams that employs a 3-3-5 defense, one with an equal number of down linemen and linebackers. TCU used it to get to the College Football Playoff championship game, and like the Horned Frogs the Bulldogs’ front six is built on a combination of speed and athleticism.

“Mississippi State’s defense, especially in the front ... they do a really good job in their system,” Carroll said. “It’s very unique. There’s movement all over the place. So it’s a great challenge for us, our guys are up for it. It’s something we faced last year so we have an idea of what it is.”

Arizona’s offense was not prepared for it a year ago, scoring a season-low 17 points (a week after dropping 38 at San Diego State) and managing just 40 rushing yards while throwing it a season-high 54 times.

Jayden de Laura was picked off three times and sacked twice, as he showed a complete unwillingness to take off and run. A lot has changed since then, as evidenced by his 53-yard TD run on an RPO against NAU (but also a lost fumble trying to scramble in the red zone).

“They had a very good understanding of their defense,” Cowing said of MSU. “Last year, for a lot of us was our first year in that offense, so it was kind of difficult for us to kind of get on the same page with certain things.”