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Opponent Preview: Arizona Defense

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 23 Utah at Arizona Photo by Chris Coduto/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

One would imagine that even the most ardent Arizona homer would concede that the Wildcats football team is bad beyond comprehension. First-year head coach Jedd Fisch just picked up the program’s first victory since October 5, 2019, snapping a 20 game losing streak that included a 70-7 drubbing in what eventually became their 2020 season finale against heated rival ASU, and an embarrassing 21-19 home loss to FCS Northern Arizona earlier this season, who themselves carry a losing record of 4-5 with a stout Montana team that toppled the Washington Huskies to kick off the 2021 season next up on the schedule. For all the criticisms that can be levied against the Wildcats, it’s hard to fault the defense for their 1-8 performance.

Statistically speaking, Arizona’s defense is better than you might expect for a team that has been outscored 257-144 this season, but stats don’t lie. Ranked 44th nationally in total defense, the Wildcats are only giving up 8.8 more yards per game than the Utes, and have allowed just six more touchdowns than Utah’s traditionally stout defense. Through the air, Arizona is allowing just 182.4 yards per game, 13th best in the nation. One might argue that Stanford, who the Utes just gashed for 441 yards on the ground, ranks 20th in passing yards allowed only because teams simply don’t need a pass-heavy offense to topple them, which may be true, but that same logic can’t be applied to a ‘Zona team that allows just 171.8 yards per game, far better than the Cardinal’s 232.1. When it comes to third-down conversions allowed, only Utah fares better within the PAC-12, giving up 35.9% of conversions, with U of A just slightly behind at 36.2%, making them the 39th best third-down defense in the country. In fact, in last week’s win over an undermanned Cal, Arizona held the Bears to just one third-down conversion on fourteen attempts, marking the first time the Wildcats allowed fewer than 10% of third-down conversions since their 2008 blowout over Idaho State. Scoreboard aside, whichever team wins the third-down battle come Saturday should feel accomplished.

With a young defense showing plenty of promise, there is a silver lining on the horizon for the Cats with sophomore safety Jaxen Turner (6’1”, 209 lbs) and redshirt freshman corner Treydan Stukes (6’1”, 184 lbs) each notching a team-high five pass deflections, accounting for 30% of all production in that category. Up front, sophomore lineman Kyon Barrs (6’3”, 295 lbs) leads the Wildcats with five sacks, just one behind Utah’s Devin Lloyd, who is making a strong case for conference defensive player of the year. Assuming Fisch can keep this young core from hitting the transfer portal in search of greener pastures, the potential is there for the Wildcats to improve in the coming seasons.

For everything Arizona is doing right on the defensive side of the ball, there are reasons to believe Utah’s offense doesn’t have much to worry about. For one, the Wildcats are one of 14 teams tied for dead last in defensive touchdowns, with senior linebacker and leading tackler Anthony Pandy (6’1”, 228 lbs) scoring on a 37-yard pick-six against USC in week nine. In fact, ‘Zona struggles to create turnovers in general, recovering just two fumbles with four interceptions all season, leaving them 126th nationally in turnovers gained, and dead last in turnover margin at -14. Worse yet, Fisch’s team is one of the most penalized in America, averaging 8.5 penalties per game, with offsides flags being one of the main culprits this season. It’s safe to say this team gets in their own way more often than not, and they’re closer to being respectable again than most people give them credit for.