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Defensively Speaking: Arizona

Last night’s Pac-12 After Dark matchup against the University of Arizona Wildcats was one of the stranger games of this season…and that’s saying a lot. If not for the crippling number of injuries it would have been amusing. Now it’s a costly win but a win nonetheless. On the defensive side of the ball, this was Clancy Pendergast at his best. He put together a game plan that was designed to 1) Disrupt U of A’s QB vision and timing of the field and 2) adequately control the dangerous run game and 3) piece together from his remaining healthy players a secondary and linebacker group that could execute his plan. Mission accomplished and impressively so.

As for the offensive plan, I would argue that the first-quarter-plus slow start for our offense is starting to be a trend. What I don’t understand is why Markese Stepp was not on the field for the first series 3rd-and-one. The outcome was 0 yards and a punt, which was the first of four straight 3-and-outs. That’s adding lots pressure on the defense. In this case the defense and special teams responded and were successful stopping U of A and recovering a muffed punt.

What Worked:

  • Defensive line rush was disciplined and gap controlling. The results were clearly upsetting Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate as his usual spin out move with his legs was just not available. Losing Drake Jackson to injury was a big price to pay and I hope he is ok, but it didn’t look good to me.
  • All types of pressure produced 11 TFLs, of which 7 were sacks. The pressure packages helped to control a very dangerous run game (which I think Coach Sumlin gave up on way too early)
  • Kana’i Mauga had a monster of a game with 13 tackles (including one sack), a forced fumble and an interception. His performance really puts the pressure on Clancy Pendergast regarding deployment strategies when EA (Palaie Gaoteote) returns. My preference is EA on the edge and Mauga inside. This is not a new concept especially simplifying things for EA so he can play more instinctively and athletically. We’ll see.
  • Houston had his best game of the season and maybe career (8 tackles, 2.5 TFLS including 1.5 sacks and a fumble recovery). One noteworthy adjustment was Houston playing closer to the Line of Scrimmage (LOS) on most downs except for obvious passing downs when he didn’t have rush or man coverage responsibilities. This was a needed adjustment I noted the past two games. It just makes better sense since it adds the ILBs into both blitz and run support without having to cram the A-gaps while improving the angle of attack tackling. Subtle but a good move.
  • Marlon Tuiplotu, Jay Tufele, Drake Jackson, Brandon Pili and Caleb Tremblay put together collectively a fine performance and a rebound from last week’s sub-par performance against Notre Dame.
  • The defense used our 4 DL plus 2 ILBs, 2 CBs, 2 Safeties and a nickel back.
  • Freshmen secondary players responded brilliantly with many first-time players and starters. I was amused as the secondary alignments were a little different because of the players newness. This added to Tate’s discomfort in his passing attack.
  • Tackling was much improved. Not sure if this starting group would have fared any better against a physical team like Notre Dame but I would like to think so.

What Didn’t Work:

  • Coach Helton has said that the buck stops with him regarding penalties. Well, last night was penalty ugly including the only negative in Mauga’s play with an unequivocal unsportsmanlike excessive celebration call. Look, we won so all is forgiven but we have to stop the controllable fouls and that includes Kenan Christon too. So now we have these types of calls against Stepp, Fink, Christon and Mauga. Cut it out…
  • Injuries are a bit of a mystery, but we paid a heavy price last night. Not sure what to do about that matter other than conditioning.
  • Harrell needs to help prepare quarterback Kedon Slovis as he starts games. Might I suggest tapping into the inside run game, bootleg and a deep ball in the first series to loosen up the defense? Just do something as 4 three-n-outs is not acceptable against a defense like U of A’s. It’s abundantly clear that Harrell’s learning curve is steep. My advice; impose our will and game plan.

Additional Shout Outs:

  • An honorary linebacker designation for kickoff specialist Alex Stadthaus. Two excellent tackles on KO returns and possibly touchdown-saving. Shouldn’t make a habit of it but he is the last line of defense as nice job.
  • Chase McGrath is still perfect on PATs and FGs. Well done and great injury recovery and work ethic. Impressive young man.

So, now it is a short preparation and travel week to Boulder. Got to tape some of the guys but at least there is plenty of ice in Colorado. All our games are must wins now.

Kevin Bruce

Kevin earned his MBA and BS in Business Administration/Finance & Econometrics from the University of Southern California, where he also played four years of varsity football, serving as co-captain and playing in three Rose Bowls. Kevin’s college honors included All-American (AP-Honorable Mention), All Pac-8 Conference - Linebacker (1st) and Academic All-American, two NCAA National Championships (football), NCAA Post Graduate Scholarship recipient and Trojan Diamond Award-outstanding graduating senior. He is a member of Football Writers Association of America and is a contributor to WeAreSC.com.

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