clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Previewing the Arizona defense

If Cal's offense can solve a solid but exploitable Arizona defense, a 3-0 start might be there for the taking.

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Scooby Wright is a name to watch on Saturday.
Scooby Wright is a name to watch on Saturday.
Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Spor

It's time to preview Arizona's defense, which of course means that it's time to talk about Jeff Casteel and the 3-3-5!

I probably don't need to tell you that the 3-3-5 is a relatively recent response to the quick proliferation of spread defenses that use 4 wide receivers in their basic personnel package. With more than half of the conference embracing the spread offense to varying degrees, it's hardly unreasonable to play five defensive backs as a response. Of course, playing a different formation is hardly a guarantee of success against any offense. You still have to have the players, and that's where the questions are for Arizona.

As Nam detailed in his Monday post, the 3-3-5 has many of the same advantages as the 3-4 in terms of a defense's ability to disguise blitzers and confuse linemen. Even with that advantage, Arizona struggled to rack up sack numbers last year and hasn't been getting incredible pressure this year. Still, Cal's line will have to be ready to handle various looks all game long.

Last year, Arizona had a defense that was roughly league average. That may not sound like much, but it was a big step up from the previous year when only Colorado was demonstrably worse. Casteel is now in his 3rd year in Tucson, and the question is if he can improve results for the 2nd year in a row. With multiple starters and two NFL draft picks gone from last year's defense, easier said than done.

Starters

END: Sr. Reggie Gilbert ; NOSE: Jr. Jeff Worthy ; TACKLE: Sr. Dan Pettinato

There are some question marks along the line as Gilbert is the only returning starter. Pettinato got spot duty as a backup last year, while Worthy was playing community college football after being dismissed by Boise St. Worthy certainly has the pedigree as a former 4 star recruit, and Gilbert was reasonably productive last year, but it's hard to say that there is an obvious game changer on the line - of Arizona's six sacks so far this year, five have come from linebackers.

Injuries have been a problem at nose tackle, where Arizona will likely still be missing Sani Fuimaono. Worthy is recovering from a concussion, and if both can't go that means Arizona will be relying on a 3rd string, 250 pound redshirt freshman in the middle of their line. They survived against Nevada, but it seems like a matchup that Cal should be able to exploit if Fuimaono and Worthy are both unable to go.

Arizona's pass defense numbers have been iffy to start the season, and if you asked Arizona fans they would tell you that a lack of a consistent pass rush is a significant factor. Cal really should be able to keep Jared Goff upright most of the time.

SLB: Jr. Makani Kema-Kaleiwahea OR So. Derrick Turituri OR So. Cody Ippolito; MLB: So. Scooby Wright ; WLB: So. DeAndre' Miller OR So. Jake Matthews

So, this is a bit of a jumble. Arizona lists six potential starters for three linebacker spots. Of those six, five are sophomores, so this strikes me as a situation in which the coaches are hoping for a younger player to assert himself above the fray. For what it's worth, the early boxscores indicate that Ippolito and Matthews have been getting the majority of the reps alongside Scooby Wright. With Matthews is listed as questionable with a shoulder injury, expect that trend to continue.

Wright is the only current linebacker to receive anything resembling significant playing time in 2013. He recorded an impressive 83 tackles as a true freshman and will have to lead a very young, very inexperienced linebacking group this year. The other five players NOT named Scooby Wright recorded a combined 21 tackles last year. Still, despite his relative youth, Wright looks to be a solid linebacker to build a defense around and might be the best player on Arizona's defense, period.

SPUR: Jr. William Parks ; BANDIT: Sr. Jared Tevis ; Left CB: Sr. Jonathan McKnight ; Right CB: Fr. Jarvis McCall Jr. ; Free Safety: Sr. Jourdon Grandon

In terms of experience this is the strength of the defense, with three returning starters and a fourth starter who got lots of time off the bench. But there is one big question mark. The one exception is redshirt freshman Jarvis McCall, who is stepping forward to replace Shaquille Richardson, current member of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Richardson was probably the best coverage man on the Wildcats last year, and it will be interesting to see if Cal makes it a point to go after McCall, and if Arizona ever leaves him in single coverage. He has been targeted by Arizona's opponents so far, so look to see which Cal wideouts get lined up across from #29.

Tevis, a veteran tackle machine, will be heavily involved as the Bandit, a flex position somewhere between a linebacker and a strong safety. He and Scooby have nearly a 3rd of Arizona's collective tackles.

One name to watch for: Tra'Mayne Bondurant. He started at SPUR every game last year for Arizona, and would likely be starting were it not for discipline issues that relegated him to special teams duty to start the year. He is evidently starting to regain the trust of the coaching staff, and could see time on Saturday - particularly if Arizona plays dime packages. Playing six defensive backs makes all kinds of sense because a) Cal will almost always have 4 receivers and b) Arizona has way more depth in the secondary than at linebacker.

2014 so far

5.15 yards/play allowed in a 58-13 win over UNLV
4.84 yards/play allowed in a 26-23 win over UTSA
5.43 yards/play allowed in a 35-28 win over Nevada

Unremarkable performances against unremarkable offenses.

Against the pass

2013: 6.9 yards/attempt allowed, 47th in the country
2014: 7.1 yards/attempt allowed, 73rd in the country

If I were an Arizona fan, I would be mildly concerned that Arizona's pass defense has allowed worse numbers in 2014, against the weak section of their schedule, than the 2013 defense that had to face elite quarterback after elite quarterback. Conversely, it's only three games, and Nevada and UTSA both want to run the ball more than they pass the ball, so I wouldn't read too much into the stats at this point.

Against the run

2013: 4.15 yards/attempt allowed, 60th in the country
2014: 3.16 yards/attempt allowed, 36th in the country

I'm pretty skeptical of Nevada generally, but the Wolfpack can usually run the ball and Cody Fajardo had certainly gashed teams in the past. They were held to 2.7 yards/carry over 40 carries. Even if you remove the two sacks from those stats, one might question why Nevada's coaching staff ran the ball so many times when the running game was so futile. Either way, credit to Arizona for shutting down the pistol.

Hopefully, Cal will find more success on the ground. Also, hopefully Cal's coaching staff won't try to keep smashing a square peg into a round hole if Cal doesn't get much traction running the ball.

Advanced stats

All stats taken from footballoutsiders.com. I suggest you glance at them, if only for the fun of seeing where Cal stands in the various metrics right now.

2013 S&P: 31st in the nation
2014 S&P: 68th in the nation

2013 FEI: 19th in the nation, 39th unadjusted
2014 FEI: 60th in the nation, unadjusted for strength of schedule.

Arizona's defense might have been a bit undervalued last year, if only because they mostly survived a brutal group of Pac-12 offenses. You'll note that before you adjust for schedule strength, the advanced stats peg Arizona at a modest 39th. I suspect the truth was somewhere in between.

Frankly, it's way, waaaaaay too early in the season to put any credence into 2014 advanced stats (FEI hasn't even added their strength of schedule modifier yet), but here at CGB we report, and you decide.

Turnovers

2013: 22 forced turnovers (18 interceptions, 4 fumbles), 53rd in the country
2014: 2 forced turnovers (2 interceptions, 0 fumbles), 96th in the country

18 interceptions is a lot, but most of the players that collected those interceptions aren't on the roster (or might not play much, in the case of Bondurant), so it remains to be seen if Arizona will have the same level of success this year. Also, Arizona has managed to recover four fumbles in their last 16 games. Unlucky, or just not Real Physical? YOU BE THE JUDGE!

Summary

Frankly, this defense is a little hard to figure out. The Wildcats only return one linebacker and one lineman from last year's starting front seven, and have dealt with line injuries. They do return four starters from the secondary. By that token, you would expect Arizona to struggle against the run but do better against the pass. Instead the Wildcats have shut down a couple of teams that prefer to run the ball, while yielding questionable passing numbers.

Is that a function of gameplay? Of the opponents? Has Arizona been cheating safety help up towards the line to help out their inexperience front seven? Is it just a case of Pac-12 caliber athletes beating small conference athletes? Are the new linebackers really struggling when they are asked to help cover short passing routes?

It's worth noting that Arizona has been pretty good this year and last year at preventing explosive plays. Only three plays have gone for 30+ yards. There should be lots of space underneath for Jared Goff and Luke Rubenzer to exploit against Arizona's inexperienced, questionable linebackers, but the deep ball might be harder to come by.

Arizona's troubles shutting down the intermediate passing game gives me optimism. We all know how accurate Jared Goff is. We all know Cal is overflowing with solid-or-better receiving targets. With enough out routes and sideline fades to keep the defense honest, doesn't it seem like Cal should be able to complete 8 yard crossing pattern after 8 yard crossing pattern down the field?

Ah, but what about Cal's running game? I'm not sure what to expect. I'm guessing that Arizona, facing by far the best passing attack they have seen in 2014, won't be quite as aggressive in run support. Still, Cal didn't wow against Northwestern and Arizona's run defense is probably on that level. But if Arizona is vulnerable in the secondary, how necessary is it for Cal to establish a strong, consistent run threat?

I've probably asked more questions than given answers. The bottom line is that, if Cal is as good as they claim to be, they should be able to put up points on an average Pac-12 defense, which is exactly what I expect Arizona to be.

And I think I believe the hype. Wha . . . what is this strange feeling?! Is it optimism? It's been so long, I can't be sure . . . but I think it is!

I missed you, optimism. Let's hope we can meet up again next week.