2023 High School Football

Arizona’s rush defense earns high national rating after shutting down Washington State

Arizona’s Jacob Manu (5) and Justin Flowe bring down a Washington State ball carrier (Arizona Athletics photo)

Johnny Nansen’s return to his alma mater Saturday was a dominating one for the Arizona defensive coordinator, who played for Washington State from 1995 to 1997 as a linebacker.

Arizona limited the Cougars the 234 yards of total offense, their second-lowest total of the season, in the 44-6 drubbing of the No. 19 Cougars (4-2, 1-2). It was Arizona’s highest margin of victory on the road against a ranked opponent, topping the 32-point spread at No. 20 Utah in 2014 (42-10 victory).

Washington State was No. 12 nationally in scoring offense entering the game; the Cougars are now No. 30 averaging 34.3 points a game.

They amassed only 35 yards rushing on 22 attempts against Arizona.

The performance elevated Arizona from No. 24 in rushing defense in the nation to No. 14. The Wildcats are allowing only 96.0 yards per game on the ground through the first seven games.

“I believe they’re a top 12 scoring offense in the country; we held them to six points,” Arizona coach Jedd Fisch said in the postgame press conference. “We took the ball away, I believe four times or three times, I know two interceptions and least one fumble recovery. A fourth down stop on their own 36-yard line, a fourth down stop on their own 21-yard line. So I like everything about the way our defense played today.”

The Wildcats are No. 3 in the Pac-12 in rushing defense, behind Utah (No. 2 nationally at 66.8 yards rushing allowed a game) and UCLA (No. 5, 76.0).

Former Michigan defensive end Taylor Upshaw brings down Washington State’s Cameron Ward for a sack (Arizona Athletics photo)

Arizona is 85th in passing defense, allowing 236.9 yards per game, which is more than Washington State quarterback Cameron Ward mustered Saturday.

He passed for a season-low 192 yards without a touchdown pass for the first time in 2023.

Arizona redshirt freshman Noah Fifita had a better performance than Ward, who was mentioned by national media types as a Heisman Trophy candidate when the Cougars started 4-0.

In fact, Fifita, a backup to start the year before starter Jayden de Laura suffered an injured ankle, did not take a backseat in the last three games against the highly publicized Michael Penix, Jr., of Washington, Caleb Williams of USC and Ward.

Fifita had more passing yards (877) and touchdowns (eight) in those games compared to a combined 760 yards and one touchdown by Penix, Williams and Ward.

The result has to do with both Fifita and Arizona’s defense, which seemingly is getting better each game under Nansen, in his second year as the defensive coordinator after Don Brown left to become head coach at UMass following the 2021 season.

Arizona defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen, one of several with Washington State ties with the Wildcat program, was awarded a game ball from head coach Jedd Fisch (Arizona Athletics photo)

Arizona ranks No. 32 nationally in total defense, allowing 332.9 yards per game.

That is fourth in the Pac-12 behind Utah (No. 9, 277.8), UCLA (No. 11, 281.0) and Oregon (No. 13, 282.2).

Arizona’s Flex Defense is an offshoot of the dominant Desert Swarm defense of the 1990s.

Defensive backs coach Duane Akina and consultant Tedy Bruschi were part of that golden era of Arizona football.

Arizona used a modified 4-3 formation with four down lineman and three linebackers with a “flex” player.

The primary function of the Desert Swarm was to stop the run and force the offense to pass with the flex player essential for it to work. The flex player was an interior lineman who rushed the passer and on occasion dropped into coverage. 

Arizona cornerbacks coach John Richardson, who spent the 2020 and 2021 seasons with Washington State in the same role as well as serving as the recruiting coordinator, celebrates the Wildcats’ win over the Cougars with veteran Wildcat assistant Duane Akina (Arizona Athletics photo)

Arizona used Chandler Basha graduate Jeremy Mercier, a linebacker, in that “flex” role against Washington State. The Wildcats also had Jacob Manu line up as the flex defender, a position that seemed to disrupt the Cougars’ offensive execution.

“We went back to our roots a little bit when Desert Swarm was Desert Swarm,” Fisch said. “We had Coach Akina put in a little bit of flex defense this week with Coach Nansen. We thought it was gonna be a great little add to what we’ve been doing and continue to get as many defensive linemen in the game as possible, kind of been really what we’ve been doing and that’s continued.”

Arizona is now 36-1 against Pac-12 opponents when limiting them to single-digit scoring with the lone loss a 7-6 setback to Arizona State at home in 1992.

Incredibly, more than half of those games — 20 of them — have occurred on the road, including Saturday’s outcome at Pullman.

It was the ninth time Arizona has kept Washington State under 10 points since the Wildcats joined the conference in 1978. That’s the second-most single-digit games for an opponent. The Wildcats have limited Oregon State to nine points or less 11 times.

Washington State became the seventh ranked Pac-12 foe for Arizona to be kept to less than 10 points.

The most substantial in terms of that outcome was Arizona and its Desert Swarm defense shutting down No. 1 Washington 16-3 at Arizona Stadium in 1992.

The Wildcats’ lone shutout victory against conference opponents was a 33-0 victory at Oregon State in 1993, during the Desert Swarm era.

Pac-12 opponents single-digit scoring vs. Arizona

List of results when Arizona has limited a Pac-12 opponent to less than 10 points since the Wildcats joined the conference in 1978:
33-0WOregon StateA9/25/1993
38-3W12 OregonH10/31/1998
23-3W11 UCLAH10/3/1992
16-3W1 WashingtonH11/7/1992
50-6WOregon StateH9/3/1983
45-6WWashington StateA9/17/1983
44-6W19 Washington StateA10/14/2023
31-6WWashington StateA11/8/1996
27-6WOregon StateA11/2/1985
21-6W8 StanfordA10/17/1992
9-6W25 Washington StateA10/23/1993
48-7WWashington StateH11/7/2009
44-7WOregon StateH10/10/2015
42-7W22 UCLAH10/14/1989
41-7WWashington StateH11/7/1998
40-7WOregon StateA11/14/1981
24-7WWashington StateA10/16/2010
33-7WOregon StateH10/26/1996
28-7WOregon StateA10/17/1998
27-7WOregon StateH11/8/1997
24-7WOregon StateA11/22/1980
22-7WWashington StateA9/8/1979
12-7WWashington StateH9/14/1985
10-7WWashington StateA10/15/1994
7-6LArizona StateH11/21/1992
27-8WOregon StateA9/15/1984
14-9WOregon StateA11/4/1995
10-9WCalifornia H9/25/2010


ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon. He became an educator in 2016 and is presently a special education teacher at Sunnyside High School in the Sunnyside Unified School District.

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