Maligned Arizona football defense shines
LAS VEGAS — NAU and UNLV aren’t the most dynamic offenses in the country, but limiting the two schools to a combined average of 276 yards per game and forcing six turnovers is not something that should be left to omission.
The Wildcats’ last season was the worst ranked total defense in the Pac-12 conference. So, any sign of improvement in year two of defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel’s 3-3-5 ‘odd stack’ is encouraging. An overall change in attitude has shown to be the key so far.
“We’ve started off OK, but we can still do a lot better,” senior linebacker Marquis Flowers said about the defense. “Turnovers are obviously a big thing, and we want to get opportunities like that every game.”
After forcing NAU into two interceptions and a fumble in week one, Arizona nearly repeated that this week with two interceptions and two fumble recoveries. By the end of the UNLV game, the Wildcats had scored 21 of their 58 points off turnovers, which isn’t a big deal considering they won by 45 points. Come conference play, however, 18 points will mean a lot more.
UA defensive lineman Kirifi Taula tackles an UNLV Rebel on Saturday.
Leading the way for turnovers early in the Wildcats’ season has been spurring on Tra’Mayne Bondurant. The junior entered this season with three career interceptions and one returned for a touchdown. Two games into this season and Bondurant has already matched his career total with three picks and doubled his touchdowns with two.
Arizona’s five interceptions, seventh in the country, haven’t been the only obvious improvements on defense through two games. Arizona’s rush defense has been more effective than last year’s.
The Lumberjacks’ Zach Bauman and the Rebels’ Tim Cornett don’t get the same national attention as some Pac-12 running backs do, but they are two of the most talented backs Arizona’s defense will face this season. And the two power running backs were limited to a combined average of 69 yards on 36 total carries with zero touchdowns.
Led by senior defensive lineman Sione Tuihalamaka, the Wildcats’ defensive line has kept pressure on the opposition and has been a strong run blocker up front. Tuihalamaka leads the line with seven tackles, three for a loss.
The depth on defense has also promoted a stronger defensive team in 2013. Health has played a big part in the change, but a strong freshman class mixed with returning sophomores who gained a lot of experience as freshmen has brought stability to the Wildcats defense, which struggled to be consistent last season.
Through two games freshman linebacker Scooby Wright leads the team with 13 total tackles. Sophomore Sir Thomas Jackson, who played in all 13 games in 2012 as a freshman, has certainly learned from last year’s exposure to be a dependable third down linebacker in the Wildcats’ SWAT defense.
But the most noticeable change for head coach Rich Rodriguez has been the overall mindset of the defense.
“We’re undersized. There’s still a lot of inexperience at certain spots, but they’re playing hard,” Rodriguez said.
—Follow Luke Della @LukeDellaDW