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Thursday, April 24, 2014 | Last updated: 9:55am

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Arizona offense is saving grace for football



At times during the Wildcats’ 39-36 upset against USC last week, the defense looked like boys struggling to play against men — well, actually just one man: receiver Marqise Lee.

Lee ran around, through and past Arizona to the tune of 469 total yards. As in, one single player ran for more than a quarter mile against the Wildcats, and somehow the UA still won.

Obviously most of the credit goes to the UA offense, specifically quarterback Matt Scott and receiver Austin Hill. And considering Lee’s Pac-12 record 345 receiving yards was a greater yardage total than 21 teams have averaged per game this season, it’d be hard to say the defense played well, at least statistically.

That’s not a single game trend either, as the Arizona defense gift wraps yardage like it’s Christmas for the opposition, ranking 110th in the nation in yards and 86th in points.

The numbers aren’t pretty, but that’s exactly where common statistics let you down.

In no way, shape or form is the Arizona defense great. All things considered though, the defense has been passable, and with one of the nation’s best offenses that’s all you need to be a top-25 team.

With the most significant game for Arizona still left in the season — on the road against No. 25 UCLA — the defense will need to perform just well enough to leave the Rose Bowl with a win.

It may seem like a stretch to consider a defense that allows 484 yards a game even competent, but that’s if you ignore the teams the Wildcats have played.

In Football Outsiders’ opponent-adjusted defensive efficiency ratings, the site’s most important statistic for defense, Arizona is dead in the middle of the country at No. 60. Sure, that puts the Wildcats at 8th in the Pac-12 for rushing defense, but the defense hasn’t been good — it’s just not awful.

As much as Wildcat fans would like to think the UA can win purely on Scott’s arm and Ka’Deem Carey’s legs, think again. The Wildcats need the defense to show up, and it usually has, just in unconventional ways.

Last weekend, for example, Arizona’s defense surrendered 618 total yards to then-No. 9 USC. Again, that’s not very good. What the defense did do a good job of was forcing turnovers, a key trait for teams that play alongside a high-paced offense.

The Wildcats took the ball away five times last Saturday, three times thanks to linebacker Marquis Flowers. While the Wildcats haven’t exactly been ball hawks this season, Arizona’s turnover margin of plus-four places them at 31st in the nation.

“Our kids have found ways to make some plays in just about every game,” defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel said. “They’re scrappy and getting the job done.”

With a victory this weekend, coupled with a USC loss to No. 2 Oregon, the Wildcats will be in control of their own destiny. Of course, that’s a lot easier said than done.

UCLA ranks twelfth in the nation in total yards, thanks to the young/old duo of freshman quarterback Brett Hundley and senior running back Johnathan Franklin. But the Bruins also have a knack for turning the ball over, as they’re tied at No. 95 with 18 turnovers lost.

If the Wildcats can be opportunistic, or at least competent on defense, they could easily beat the slightly favored Bruins.

The UCLA offense packs a mean punch, ranking 37th in Football Outsiders’ opponent-adjusted offensive efficiency. But if Arizona can get some stops and hand the ball back to the offense, the Wildcats could have their second three-game winning streak of the season.

— Kyle Johnson is a journalism junior. He can be reached at sports@wildcat.arizona.edu or on Twitter via @WildcatSports or @KyleJohnsonUA .


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