Before the raid: Previewing the Arizona defense

If nothing else, RichRod learned from his failure at Michigan and brought Jeff Casteel with him to Arizona. - Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Will Cal do any better against a Wildcat defense that is succeeding with a relatively unique defensive formation?

If nothing else, facing Arizona offers a change of pace. No longer will Cal face a 3-4 defense with marauding linebackers or a 4-3 defense with ends ready to give our tackles nightmares. No! Rich Rodriguez brought Jeff Casteel with him to Arizona to implement the 3-3-5 stack defense in Tucson. Instead, Cal will have to face a defense specifically created in reaction to spread offenses that love to throw lots of short passes into the flat. Uh-oh?

I won't give you an entire treatise on what the 3-3-5 is designed to do. Thank the heavens that smart people like Chris Brown exist to do that better than I ever could. Here's a key part:

The 3-3-5 defense starts with three down linemen, three true linebackers stacked behind those linemen, and five defensive backs. Those five include three in the traditional mold and two hybrid strong safeties/outside linebackers that can patrol the flats, blitz, stop the run or even cover receivers or tight ends in man coverage.

So, let's look at the players that will implement the scheme.

Personnel

Defensive Line: Jr. DE Reggie Gilbert; Sr. NT Tevin Hood; Sr. DE Sione Tuihalamaka

Much like a 3-4, Arizona's linemen are focused more on occupying blockers than actually making the tackles themselves, although these three have done a reasonable job either way. 12.5 total tackles for loss indicate that they're getting up field and disrupting plays.

It's worth noting that Arizona has only managed 9 total sacks in seven games so far this year. That might have something to do with a lack of teams actually throwing the ball frequently against them, but it's worth considering that Arizona just has a weak pass rush. File it away.

Linebackers: Fr. SLB Scooby Wright OR So. SLB Keoni Bush-Loo; Sr. MLB Jake Fischer; Sr. WLB Marquis Flowers

I find it hard to believe that Arizona is seriously considering benching their leading tackler in favor of a guy with three total tackles despite having participated in all 7 games, but the depth chart says 'OR' and I report the depth chart. Wright, Fischer and Flowers are the defense's three leading tacklers and are the main run stoppers. They'll move forward to get into the gaps between the linemen when Cal actually decides to run the ball, and of course they'll have frequent coverage duties as well.

Secondary: Jr. SPUR Tra-Mayne Bondurant; Jr. BANDIT Jared Tevis; Jr. LCB Jonathan McKnight; Sr. RC Shaquille Richardson; Jr. FS Jourdon Grandon

In case you didn't have time to read the Chris Brown article above, the SPUR and BANDIT positions are what makes the 3-3-5. They're the hybrid positions in the except above. Bondurant is probably the guy to watch. He's got three picks, plenty of passes defended, and a few tackles for loss to boot. He's exactly the versatile type of player Casteel needs in the 3-3-5, and is probably a big reason why the Arizona defense has fared so much better so far this year.

The other man to watch is Shaquille Richardon, who has been around forever and will likely hear his name in the NFL draft next year. He's had more than 30 starts for Arizona and has nine career interceptions. I vote we send Chris Harper out to the left side of the formation.

This Year

3.6 yards/play allowed in a 35-0 win over Northern Arizona
4.5 yards/play allowed in a 58-13 win over UNLV
5.0 yards/play allowed in a 38-13 win over UTSA
4.8 yards/play allowed in a 31-13 loss to Washington
7.3 yards/play allowed in a 38-31 loss to USC
4.4 yards/play allowed in a 35-24 win over Utah
4.7 yards/play allowed in a 44-20 win over Colorado

What I see is that Arizona pretty well shut down 4 teams they should be expected to shut down, did well against a team missing their only viable quarterback (Utah), got torched by Cody Kessler, and did reasonably well against Washington.

It's a tough defense to figure out. The schedule isn't strong, but the Wildcats have done what they were supposed to do against those types of teams. The performance against Washington is a little misleading because UW leaned so heavily on their run game (a run to pass ratio of nearly 3:1) on Northwest Monsoon Saturday and managed to win because Bishop Sankey carried them.

If I were an Arizona fan, I'd be concerned about what happened against USC once Arizona's schedule starts to stiffen. Unfortunately, said stiffening won't happen until next week.

Against the Run

2013: 3.9 yards allowed/attempt, 53rd in the nation

Half of that is probably Sankey churning out 4 yard run after 4 yard run over the course of 40 exhausting carries a few weeks ago. The Wildcats did have trouble slowing down Silas Redd as well, but nobody expects Cal to do what USC and Washington were able to do.

Against the Pass

2013: 6.1 yards allowed/attempt, 14th in the nation

Well, that's a scary number. But again, it needs to be qualified. Cody Kessler is the best quarterback Arizona has faced this year in weather that allows a team to throw the ball. Arizona's secondary is largely untested, veteran though they may be, and they weren't great last year.

Now, they've had an entire extra year in the 3-3-5, and that means something. It's entirely possible that they have improved significantly. But I think they've gone from 86th in the country in yards/attempt allowed all the way to 14th because of a schedule full of teams that aren't very good at throwing the ball.

Unfortunately, Cal (85th in the nation in yards/attempt) isn't very good at throwing the ball right now. It feels unnecessary to remind you at the end of each section that no matter the level of uncertainty or concern about an opponent's abilities, that Cal isn't very good. Should I stop doing that?

Advanced Stats

S&P STATS

Total Defense

Standard Downs

Passing Downs

Run Defense

Pass Defense

National Rank

26

14

59

25

41


FEI+ total defensive efficiency rank: 21st in the nation

I find these stats a bit baffling, and I suspect that Arizona's stats are inflated because they got to face Washington during a monsoon and got to face Utah when Travis Wilson was too hurt to complete a pass. Those are teams with offenses that have otherwise been pretty good, so it makes it seem like Arizona did really well in those games when in fact they were the benefactors of circumstance. Context is key!

Stats of Dubious Value

As a reminder: Below are stats that, while interesting, may have little if any predictive value on what will occur over the course of 80-100 offensive snaps tomorrow.

Turnovers

2013: 12 forced turnovers, 70th in the nation (2 fumbles, 10 interceptions)

A decent number of turnovers, but those two fumble recoveries put Arizona last in the nation in the category. They're also last in the country in forcing fumbles, and their defense has recovered exactly half of available fumbles, so you can't even point to bad luck. Arizona doesn't appear to excel at forcing turnovers. Let's hope that Cal at least forces Arizona to make them fumble, and that they don't cough up the ball at random intervals with little if any contact.

3rd Down

2013: Opponent 3rd down conversion rate of 37.39%, 48th in the nation

Meh

Red Zone

2013: Opponent scoring percentage of 85.71, 81st in the nation
2013: Opponent touchdown percentage of 78.57, 118th in the nation

Irresistible force, meet immovable object. Arizona has had the worst red zone defense in the Pac-12 so far this year. Cal has (with the possible exception of Colorado) had the worst red zone offense in the conference. Which worst wins out? Tune in on Saturday for the thrilling conclusion!

Conclusions

I dunno man. Arizona might be vulnerable. They've given up 20 points in every Pac-12 game so far this year despite having faced maybe one of the six best teams in the conference. The let Nelson Agholor run wild through the secondary and they let Cody Kessler average 10 yards/attempt. That's not great.

But they have a better defense than Washington State, and we saw how that turned out. They're probably not much different from Oregon State's defense and we saw how that turned out.

Once again, I find myself hoping to see Cal's offense turn a corner, without having any particular reason to think it will happen. If it did, it would almost certainly have something to do with a running game that could take even the tiniest bit of pressure off the passing game. I'm not optimistic

Cal should, at the very least, score in the 20s. Colorado did that. Cal had better be able to match that level of production. That's all I'm asking, and I don't think it's too much, right?

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