Arizona Wildcats defense sneaky good in 2019
The Arizona Wildcats are 119th nationally in total defense, have given up 16 scores in 17 red-zone trips and are even worse than last season in giving up third-down conversions, which is not easy to do.
And, yet, these guys have been sneaky good.
Some of the stats above are simply for suckers because what has really mattered in Arizona's 4-1 start -- with a big game against Washington coming up at home on Saturday night -- is that the defense has erased many mistakes by winning key situations.
Nine interceptions in five games cure many ills, and the Wildcats' 11 total takeaways are tied for 16th nationally.
Although they rank 115th nationally in third-down defense (46.7 percent allowed), Colorado was only 6 of 16 last week and failed on a fourth-and-4 try at the UA 46 with 2:23 left as Arizona clung to a 35-30 lead that would be the final margin.
And Arizona has managed to force five field goals in 16 red-zone scores by the opponents, while the UA offense has kicked just three field goals during 16 red-zone scores.
It doesn't sound like a lot, but it's just enough.
Making just a few more plays per game means everything. Arizona was 1-4 last season, including a pair of one-point heartbreakers, in games decided by seven points or fewer.
Arizona's past three games have been up for grabs in the fourth quarter -- and the Cats have won them all.
That's the most important part of the Arizona defensive numbers -- winning the fourth quarter.
The Wildcats outscored Texas Tech, UCLA and Colorado 29-3 in the final period.
"Our team is in really good physical condition. I think to the naked eye you can see that from the other teams," coach Kevin Sumlin said this week, crediting football strength and conditioning director Brian Johnson.
"These guys are confident in that fourth quarter because they know they're in really good physical condition and they trust each other."
Pressuring the quarterback remains a problem -- just four sacks -- and that figures to be an issue against Washington. Quarterback Jacob Eason has a strong arm and can make all the throws, but he often backtracks into further trouble when under pressure, rather than stepping up or buying himself another fraction of a second in the pocket.
Linebackers Colin Schooler (40 tackles, five for loss) and cornerback Jace Whittaker have been constants, but the defense also has had a rotating cast of important game-day contributors, such as linebackers Tony Fields and Anthony Pandy, defensive tackle Finton Connolly, defensive end Jalen Harris and true freshman cornerbacks Christian Roland-Wallace and Bobby Wolfe, among others.
"We are playing more people on defense than we played last year," Sumlin said, citing yet another factor in the fourth-quarter success.
I still think Arizona's competition has been suspect -- tougher games to come -- as Arizona beat FCS school NAU, a re-tooling Texas Tech team in which its starting quarterback was injured during the game, a bad UCLA team that lost its QB to injury, and a Colorado squad that didn't have its best player on offense (WR Laviska Shenault) or defense (DL Mustafa Johnson).
On the other hand, each of those opponents has defeated a Top 25 team this season ... so maybe those Arizona wins have some merit.
Meanwhile, Washington comes in after dropping out of the Top 25 following its 23-13 loss to Stanford. The Huskies were supposed to be open up their offense this season with Georgia transfer Eason following the more-modestly gifted Jake Browning, but Washington has had a hard time breaking out of the shell it went into the past few seasons as it played to the team's strength -- its defense.
"They were passive, they were timid, there was no aggressiveness on either side of the ball. They were playing for Stanford to make mistakes, and Stanford was in attack mode," former UW quarterback Brock Huard, a FOX analyst told Jon Wilner at the San Jose Mercury News. "You saw a neutered Washington team in every phase."
It sets up an intriguing battle Saturday night: A Washington offense trying to find its identity against an Arizona defense filled with confidence.
"Now, we're popping out," cornerback Lorenzo Burns told reporters this week. "We like surprising people."