Arizona threw caution to the wind and attacked.
The Wildcat defense blitzed when it hasn’t blitzed much before, stunted its defensive linemen to open holes and went from giving up a few yards to taking away almost everything.
The carefree strategy worked perfectly in the second half for a 42-27 win over then No. 25-ranked California at Arizona Stadium on Saturday.
It’s an approach Wildcat players think might be best suited from here on out, starting with a homecoming challenge against No. 6 USC on Saturday.
Arizona seems to play best when the odds are greater, winning its fourth game against a ranked team out of its last five. The Cats (5-2, 3-1) moved into a four-way tie for first in the Pac-10 with USC, Oregon and Oregon State.
“We were playing a little off. The corners finally said, ‘That’s enough,’ ” UA safety Nate Ness said. “If they’re going to beat us, they’re going to beat us playing all over them.
“That’s the way we have to play all the time. We have the beast coming in.”
The Beast is USC.
The Trojans are back into the national championship picture after winning three straight since a 27-21 upset loss to Oregon State on Sept. 25.
USC, coming off a 69-0 victory over Washington State, has outscored its opponents 141-10 since that defeat.
Playing aggressively could get a defense beaten badly against an explosive Trojan offense, however.
USC, which averages 41 points and 471 yards a game, has offensive firepower everywhere on the field.
The Wildcats are showing they want to go down with a fight, and not by playing with vigilance, something that got them in trouble against California.
Playing soft gave the Bears a 10-point first half lead. Cal took advantage of UA’s extra emphasis on stopping the run by throwing against the secondary. Nobody had challenged the Cats, who previously were ranked No. 1 nationally against the pass.
The Bears found holes as Nate Longshore twice threw touchdown passes. Cal receiver Verran Tucker found seams for four catches, 68 yards and a TD in the first half. He was shut out in the second half.
The Wildcats came out of a solemn halftime locker room with a “no more” attitude.
“We changed up our coverages, made tighter coverages,” UA cornerback Devin Ross said. “We did a lot of blitzing. We were more aggressive and came out with more intensity.”
Longshore looked confused. The Bears’ running game became nonexistent. The Cal coaches panicked with their play selection.
Cal’s production in the first half helped drop the Wildcats to sixth nationally in passing defense. The Bears finished with 315 yards through the air.
The victory – and UA’s newfound style of play – made the stats seem secondary.
“We were tentative at first. (Cornerback) Marquis Hundley was a little cautious with the ball,” UA defensive coordinator Mark Stoops said. “When the game was on the line in the second half, we got a few pass breakups and got our hands on the ball.”
Ross typified the attacking style by following the eyes of Longshore to step in front of Tucker for a 21-yard interception return for a touchdown.
Ross, which gave the Wildcats a 35-27 lead, would not have been in a position for the pick if the Wildcats were playing back and trying to avoid the big play.
California’s offense bogged down, limited to 34 rushing yards after the intermission, 143 passing and 177 total yards.
The big number? Cal managed just a 40-yard field goal. That came after the Bears took over in UA territory, but couldn’t get past the 24.
The Bears never compensated for the halftime adjustments, or they simply couldn’t get the guys in the right spots.
Arizona clearly showed a conscious effort to stop the Bears’ rushing attack – a priority after Stanford ran for 286 yards in a 24-23 victory a week earlier.
Cal’s Jahvid Best, the nation’s all-purpose yardage leader, had 67 of his 107 yards on one play. Take away the one miscue, in which the Bears cut UA’s nose guard off for the crease, and the Bears averaged just 1.9 yards per carry.
The Wildcats’ Keola Antolin averaged 7.1 yards.
Arizona, not normally a blitzing team, blitzed. The Wildcats stunted to get defenders through gaps. Their front four pretended to charge forward, only to drop back and allow a linebacker or safety to run through.
Defensive linemen crossed behind one another at times in hopes of finding a lane, or outnumbering the Bears. As a result, California gave up four sacks after allowing only seven through five games.
“They were going to work for whatever they got,” Ness said. “That was our mind-set.
“Nothing was going to come easy.”
No. 6 USC (5-1, 3-1) at ARIZONA (5-2, 3-1)
When: Saturday, 7 p.m.
Where: Arizona Stadium
Line: USC by 15
TV: FSN. Radio: 1290 AM, 107.5 FM, 990 AM (Spanish)
Series: USC leads 25-6
Last year: USC 20-13
Trojan tidbits: USC routed WSU 69-0. Stafon Johnson, C.J. Gable and Broderick Green each ran for 100 yards-plus. Mark Sanchez had 5 TD passes.