IN-DEPTH: Strength Against Strength

Taking a look at what the Arizona defense does well, and how that will play into Saturday's game against pass-happy California.


BERKELEY -- When Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez was hired, his offense wasn't entirely different from what now-California head coach Sonny Dykes had run in Tucson when he was the offensive coordinator from 2007-09. The defense, though, was a complete shift. Whereas under Mike Stoops, the Wildcats had run a 4-3 defense, Rodriguez's new defensive coordinator -- Jeff Casteel -- installed a 3-3-5 scheme.

The results, in the first season under the new staff, were a bit rough. While the offense was third in the Pac-12 in scoring and second in total yards, the defense was 11th in scoring defense, dead last in total defense, 11th in rushing defense and 12th in passing defense.

My, how things have changed.

Through seven games, Arizona is fourth in the league in scoring defense, fifth in total defense, first in passing defense and second in passer efficiency defense, with 10 interceptions and the second-fewest penalties in the conference.

"Their players went through the growing pains last year, that happen sometimes, as you change your philosophy," Dykes said in his weekly press conference. "Their change in offense wasn't that big of a deal, because it was a pretty similar style offense that they were running prior, and they had Matt Scott at quarterback that had a lot of experience in that type of offense, last season. I think the transition, offensively, was much easier than the transition, defensively, last year."

Junior Tra'Mayne Bondurant is fourth in the league in pass break-ups, with two other Wildcats among the top 20 totals in the league. Bondurant is also third in the Pac-12 in picks (three) with two of those returned for touchdowns.

"They're playing with mostly the same guys, defensively. They're just more comfortable. They know how to play the defense now," Dykes said. "They've gotten reps. They've developed the skills that they need to be successful. Those guys have all gained experience last year, and they're getter, as a result, this year. That's what happens in football. If you're not very good one year, and you're playing with young guys – which they were last year – all of their guys are pretty much back. They got a lot better."

Arizona is seventh in the conference in rushing defense (165.0 ypg), and the only truly run-intensive team they've played was the third-most prolific rushing offense in the league (Washington), but given that Cal has had well-documented troubles running the ball (10th in the Pac-12, with 109.5 ypg), the scheme is well-equipped to stop a pass-centric offense, which, given the realities of the Bears' ground struggles, is exactly what the Bear Raid has turned into, with 426 passing attempts to 290 rushes this season.

"They're going to try and out-number you in the box and make you throw the ball and kind of play into the strength of their defense, which is their secondary," Dykes said. "They're aggressive on the back end, very much so. They challenge routes; they don't want to give you a lot of easy throws, and they can do that because of their personnel. They've got a lot of speed on the back end – a lot of experience. As a result, they play with a lot of confidence."

All of the five starting Wildcat defensive backs are juniors or seniors, and of the 10 defensive backs listed on Arizona's two-deep, nine are sophomores or older.

"We talk about going back to earlier in the year, talked about Oregon and Ohio State defensively, and how aggressive their defensive backs were, breaking on routes, these guys are similar to that, because they've played a lot," Dykes said. "They're juniors and seniors and most of them have been two- and three-year starters, so the guys have a lot of experience, have seen a lot of different looks. As a result, I think they're playing with more confidence and they're playing much faster."

Dykes and offensive coordinator Tony Franklin have, however, faced this kind of defense before, multiple times.

"I think, certainly, that was kind of the en vogue thing six, eight years ago. A lot of teams were going to the 3-3 versus a lot of spread stuff. It makes a lot of sense, because the make-up of the defense is such that you get more speed on the field, because you have five DB-type bodies," Dykes said. "The thing you give up is, versus some teams that are going to be downhill run teams, you're playing basically defensive end with outside linebacker-type guys, so you give up some size when you're playing against a tight end or you're playing against a two tight-end set. I think that defense is kind of made for spread teams, and any time you try to gain something from a scheme standpoint, you always give a little bit of something up, and so I think it's a good scheme, especially against primarily four-wide receiver teams. I think they do a good job coaching it."

Given that the Bears don't feature any true two-tight end sets, and haven't proven that they can run the ball downhill, Arizona will be very likely to key in on freshman quarterback Jared Goff and the pass game. What may come as some relief is the fact that the Wildcats are last in the league in sacks, with nine. Arizona eschews a strong pass rush in favor of a veteran back end, as Dykes said, which could give Goff time to sit back and pick his spots, something he did very well against the Huskies this past weekend, when he felt more comfortable than he has in weeks behind a newly-reconstituted offensive line.

"I felt good out there. I thought the game plan was really good and I thought we executed some stuff pretty well," Goff said. "I don't know what it was, but I definitely did think I felt more comfortable, compared to the last couple games. I really like the gloves. They felt good. My receivers ran great routes and a lot of people were open for me. It was pretty good."

The line may not be stronger, per se, this week, but it will be deeper, with former starting left tackle Freddie Tagaloa set to back up at right guard behind Alex Crosthwaite, with former starting right guard Matt Cochran -- who's missed the past five games with a high ankle sprain – in the mix, as well.

"I think his status is, we let him do a little bit yesterday, and there were times where he was a little uncomfortable. We'll get him back in the mix and see what he can do," Dykes said. "There's the potential that we might look at him at tackle, as well, just to see how he fits out there and how comfortable he is doing that. I think it fits his skillset a little bit. He's not real tall, but he's pretty athletic and he can play in some space. I think that that's kind of the option, one of the options. We'll see as he progresses back, how all of those moving parts fit."

Dykes said that Cochran could potentially play Saturday, and he did more on Monday than the staff thought he would be able to do.

Cochran also helps bolster the depth at center, where Cal lost starter Chris Adcock during practice before the Washington State game, and had to then go with redshirt senior Mark Brazinski, before starting Jordan Rigsbee last game. While Rigsbee felt he was a bit slow as far as the cadence and snap count, Goff was pleased with what he got out of the redshirt sophomore and the other newcomers up front.

"I thought the O-line played really well, for [Christian] Okafor and [Chris] Borrayo having their first time out there. They did a really good job, and I was excited about it," Goff said. "They showed some good energy out there and they moved around well. I felt pretty comfortable in the pocket all night. I had a nice little pocket around me, I probably held onto the ball a little bit too long a little, but they did a good job. I think Jordan did a great job at center and the right side of the line continued to be solid. It was a good feel."

Goff's confidence has also been given a boost by the fact that he and redshirt freshman Zach Kline are no longer listed as "or" on the mid-week depth chart.

"That's how it's been most of the season for me, knowing that I'm the starter coming in. We've had a couple weeks where it's been ‘or' between me and Zach, where it was a competition, and I think it's made both of us better. I think, going into this week, it makes me feel a little bit more comfortable," said Goff, who got a vote of confidence on Tuesday from his head coach.

"I think it's the same thing we saw to make the decision through two-a-days. It's the same thing," Dykes said. "What you have to do for quarterbacks, some guys are going to have bad games and some guys are going to have good games, and you've got to look at the body of work. I think that's how you have to make decisions, because I just think that's the best way to do it. When you go back and you look at the body of work – whether it's practice, games, whatever – we just felt like Jared has the best body of work. When you look at the whole thing, I think when you make a decision, sometimes the best thing you can do is try to develop who you make the decision on. We felt like we wanted to give Zach a chance to see how he responded and see how Jared responded to a little bit of competition, and maybe the pressure and what goes on with that, and we thought he responded well, and that's kind of where we are." Top Stories