Arizona led UCLA at halftime, 14-7. The Wildcats were up 14-12 at Utah on Saturday night.
You know how those games ended.
UA turned a combined nine-point edge into a 34-point deficit in two losses.
There is no single reason for it all, but let’s talk about a too-small, too-thin defensive unit, because — save for the Season of Scooby in 2014 — we’ve often been talking about a too-small, too-thin defensive unit under fifth-year coach Rich Rodriguez.
The Wildcats’ defense has simply been running on empty in the second half. UCLA and Utah imposed their wills, pushed Arizona around and combined to score on nine of 11 second-half drives, excluding possessions that merely ran out the clock.
This isn’t about halftime adjustments as much as a general wearing down against more physical opponents.
In the past four games, including Hawaii and Washington, Arizona opponents’ are averaging 4.3 points per possession in the second half. That’s a huge number — way more than any offense ever averages over the course a season.
“We’re just so undersized,” coach Rich Rodriguez said Saturday night in his postgame interview on Sportsradio 1290 after a 36-23 defeat at Utah.
“You just feel for our guys. They’re playing hard and they’re trying, but we get overpowered a little bit. We have to do a better job of getting leverage and getting off blocks.”
For all this, Rodriguez has no one to blame but himself.
While it’s true he inherited a defensive unit lacking depth, Rodriguez has had five recruiting classes to do something about it. That he changed his entire defensive coaching staff after last season tells you how unsuccessful those efforts were to bring in bigger, longer, athletes.
It’s always about personnel, not scheme.
The more aggressive philosophy of new coordinator Marcel Yates does seem to be creating more pressure, although the numbers fail to bear that out.
2016: 2.2 sacks, 5.7 tackles for loss, 1.5 turnovers gained per game; 6.08 yards per play.
2015: 2.1 sacks, 5.8 tackles for loss, 1.2 turnovers gained per game; 5.94 yards per play.
This season’s turnover numbers are slightly better, but keep in mind that six of the team’s nine takeaways came against Grambling State. So, that leaves just three takeaways for the other five games.
Compare those above averages to the season in which linebacker Scooby Wright won the Bednarik and Nagurski award as the nation’s best player.
2014: 2.7 sacks, 7.0 tackles for loss, 1.9 turnovers gained per game; 5.66 yards per play.
A big difference, right?
Reminder: It’s always about personnel, not scheme.
There is only one fix.
Recruit. Better. Players.
That’s not to say that injuries — last year and this — have played a part.
Defensive lineman Luca Bruno did not play at Utah. Starting nose guard Parker Zellers has missed three games. Starting linebacker DeAndre’ Miller returned Saturday night after missing two games. Starting safety Tellas Jones earlier missed three games.
Starting linebacker Cody Ippolito, who missed the 2013 and 2015 seasons with ACL injuries, left Saturday night’s game with a knee injury and did not return. The extent of the injury is not known.
But injuries happen. Only a few lucky few are immune. Teams have to have the quality depth to respond to injuries. Arizona doesn’t have it.
It is all frustrating for fans and Rodriguez, who didn’t care for an innocuous postgame question from Arizona Daily Star reporter Michael Lev, who asked what the coach tells the team to keep morale up after an 0-3 conference start. That part of the interview starts at about 2:50 into the audio embedded below.
“What do you want me to do, quit? You want me to quit? What are you asking?” Rodriguez said.
“We’ll probably just going to go down here and, you know, maybe try to hitchhike home and go feel sorry for ourselves; and probably just, you know, cancel the season. That’s what I think we ought to do; just cancel the season. We lost a couple of games. We had a couple of tough ones against some pretty good teams.”
Someone asked a follow-up question, “In other words, nobody is sounding the alarm?”
“Come on. Is that what you want? Is that what you expect? You expect our guys — players and coaches in there to quit because we lose a game or two? Come on. These guys are going to fight. We’re not used to doing it and nobody’s going to be happy. We ain’t going to be like ‘Oh, woe is us.’ We’re going to get back to work and try to win the next one.”