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Last stand: Arizona’s beleaguered defense will try to stop the Pack

Jake Fischer

Jake Fischer leads Arizona with 106 tackles. Photo by Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Wildcats started four walk-ons on defense in their most recent game.

Less than 5 percent of the team’s tackles have come from senior defenders.

Four players listed as second-string are true freshmen. Another pair of backups are walk-ons.

Arizona’s middle linebacker is a mere 6-foot, 215 pounds.

Too small, too thin, too young …

Is it any wonder the Wildcats are allowing a school-record 485.67 yards per game?

“The thing is, we’re young. We’re going to learn,” said that middle linebacker, junior Jake Fischer.

“When you watch the games, it’s not that we were doing a lot of stuff wrong, it was just one flaw in our technique that ruined the whole play.”

That makes Saturday’s New Mexico Bowl against Nevada a tricky matchup for the Cats. Wolf Pack coach Chris Ault is the inventor and top practitioner of the Pistol offense, which features the quarterback in a short shotgun formation with the running back lined up behind him.

The offense mixes elements of a Rich Rodriguez-favored read-option attack, with a downhill running game and passing spread formations. Nevada is the only team in the country to average more than 240 yards rushing and passing.

“They have so many moving parts,” Rodriguez said.

“You have to have great discipline and you to have great technique. The guys have to do their assignment first. There are a lot of option-type principles that our guys have to adhere to Saturday.”

Rodriguez, from the preseason, expressed concern about his defense, so the struggles are no surprise. He is playing starters for too long and backups before their time. It’s just the way it is.

This hasn’t been a failure of coordinator Jeff Casteel’s 3-3-5 scheme; in any system, you have to have the horses. Arizona doesn’t. Freshmen and walk-on account for 21.3 percent of Arizona’s tackles. Here is why the Cats are short on personnel.

And yet, for all its limitations while being shorthanded and learning a new system, the defense hasn’t been that bad.

When considering the “worst defense in school history” argument, comparing just the yards-per-game stat doesn’t cut it.

The Wildcats’ increased tempo under Rodriguez skews those “counting” stats. A better gauge is how much the defense allows per play, rather than per game.

Is Arizona’s defense good? No. But it’s better than last season, when the Cats allowed 6.59 yards per play. This unit is allowing 5.95 yards per play.

The difference is that this defense is having to defend 81.7 plays per game — 12 more per game than last season.

Translation: If Arizona played at the same tempo as last season, it would be allowing “only” 416 yards per game. Again, not good … but easier to take than 486.

“There are a lot of things we can learn, I’ll say that,” Fischer said.

“It’s hard being out there so long. I think what we need to improve upon most is our third-down efficiency. If we stop people on even 50 percent of the third downs in some games, we’d decrease our plays by 25. We kind of messed that up on our own.

“Our offense did great keeping us in some of the games when we didn’t play as well. Thank goodness for our offense.”

Arizona, which is allowing opponents to convert 43.2 percent of their third-down opportunities, hasn’t been able to be as exotic defensively as it would like to be. The young guys aren’t ready to digest the later chapters in the playbook, and the starters have enough on their plates having to be on the field so much.

“We have been playing vanilla at times,” Fischer said.

“And then some of these teams, like an Oregon or a Nevada, they try to run so many different things at you and they tempo you. If you try to throw in more stuff, you’re going to get screwed up and then they’re going to drive down and you’re going to be wondering what hit you.”

That could happen Saturday against the Wolf Pack. Running back Stefphon Jefferson is second in the nation to Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey in rushing (141.9 yards per game) and quarterback Cody Fajardo is 11th nationally with 319.2 total yards per game.

One more time, Rodriguez just needs his defense to just hang on — make a few key stops, get a couple of turnovers and let the offense do the rest.

Then, in the offseason, time will be on the side of this young defense, which will be more experienced, deeper and, hopefully, healthier in 2013. And at least a couple of junior college transfers — linebacker Brandon Golson and cornerback Prince Holloway are on the way.

“If we do our job, in a couple of years we’ll be playing 22 or 23 guys on both sides of the ball,” Rodriguez said. “Then you have a deep football team, and we’ll all sleep a little better at night.”

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