Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

The Arizona Wildcats’ recurring nightmare: run defense

Oregon's LaMichael James ran through the Arizona defense for 288 yards. Photo by Chris Morrison-US PRESSWIRE

On a night in which Arizona honored former defensive tackle Rob Waldrop — the cornerstone of the early Desert Swarm defenses — the Wildcats gave up more rushing yards in one game than they did in Waldrop’s senior season.

In 1993, Arizona allowed 346 rushing yards in 12 games, including the Fiesta Bowl shutout of Miami.

Against Oregon on Saturday night, the Cats yielded a staggering 415 rushing yards, including LaMichael James’ school record 288 yards on 23 carries.

“Defensively, we’re just not playing anywhere close to good enough to win against a good football team,” coach Mike Stoops said after the 56-31 loss to Oregon at Arizona Stadium.

“We can’t commit any more guys to the line of scrimmage to stop the run. I don’t know what else to say. Structurally, we have to look at some things. But I thought LaMichael James was spectacular. We just couldn’t get off blocks to make plays. …

“It starts with defense, and we’re not playing good enough.”

He doesn’t have to say that twice.

Out of all the things that went wrong against the Ducks — dropped passes (including a potential TD catch by Juron Criner), eight first-half penalties, another blocked PAT off the foot of Alex Zendejas — none is as damning as the fact that Arizona simply … cannot … stop … the … run.

Digest this, if you have the stomach for it. Arizona:

*Has allowed an average of 232.4 rushing yards in its eight-game losing streak against FBS opponents.

*Is yielding 6.23 yards per rush, the second-worst mark in the nation.

*Can’t get itself off the field and has given up 14 scoring drives of at least 70 yards in the past three games.

*Has allowed the past two opponents’ lead running backs — James and Stanford’s Stepfan Taylor — to set career-high rushing totals. Before that, Oklahoma State’s Joseph Randle set a personal-best with 220 combined yards rushing and receiving.

Going back to last year, USC’s Marc Tyler rushed for a career-high 160 yards against the Cats. So, basically, in Arizona’s past seven games against FBS competition, four opposing running backs have celebrated the game of their lives at Arizona’s expense.

What’s Stoops to do?

“I don’t know,” he said. “We’ve looked at it and we have to look at it some more.”

He was talking schematically, because at this point, there aren’t a lot of personnel options.

Arizona is young and/or inexperienced up front. Sophomore defensive tackle Justin Washington, a break-out star last season, has been a non-factor. Freshman Sione Fuimaono actually started in his place Saturday night.

There is no depth at linebacker, and a true freshman, Rob Hankins, has to man the middle.

Arizona isn’t particularly big in the front seven, nor is it appreciably athletic.

Blame part of it on attrition, part to injuries and part of it to just not-good-enough recruiting.

Arizona has played all season without a trio of starters — safety Adam Hall, linebacker Jake Fischer and cornerback Jonathan McKnight — plus defensive tackle Willie Mobley, who was expected to be part of the interior rotation.

Saturday night, the Cats also were missing safety Marquis Flowers, the team’s leading tackler, out with an unspecified leg injury.

The Wildcats often weren’t in the right position against the Ducks’ read-option offense, and when they were, they didn’t make the tackle. Oregon was just better. Way better. It wasn’t as if coach Chip Kelly had to write a few new pages into his playbook this week.

“Couple of times, a couple of their players told me, ‘Y’all know our plays,’” said cornerback Trevin Wade. “I said, ‘Yeah, I know, but we can’t capitalize on it.’”

It’s all a long, long way removed from the days of Waldrop, who will be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in December.

Before then, the current Cats will have to find a way to slow down Tyler this week at USC … and UCLA’s combination of Johnathan Franklin and Derrick Coleman … and Washington’s Chris Polk … and Utah’s John White … and Colorado’s Rodney Stewart … and Arizona State’s Cameron Marshall.

Those guys can’t wait to take their shot against Arizona’s run defense. The best game of their career probably awaits.


Arizona-Oregon game blog: Ducks roll behind James’ career night

Oregon coach Chip Kelly on Nick Foles: ‘I watch in awe sometimes’

Search site | Terms of service