Three days later, Don Brown was still perplexed. How could the Wildcats play so well defensively at times, so poorly at others?
“I can’t put my finger on it,” the UA’s first-year defensive coordinator said Tuesday. “But that’s the facts.”
Welcome to Arizona, Coach.
Defensive consistency has eluded the Wildcats for years. Neither schematic nor personnel changes were going to fix every problem in one offseason.
The promise displayed in the opener — in which Arizona limited BYU to 368 total yards — evaporated within minutes one week later against San Diego State. The Wildcats allowed big plays and touchdowns on the Aztecs’ first two possessions. They scored TDs on three of their first four drives. The offense accounted for 28 of SDSU’s 35 points in the first half.
In the second half, the Aztecs managed only one field goal — on a drive that began at the UA 15-yard line.
“I think we’ve played six pretty decent quarters,” Brown said amid preparations for Saturday’s game against NAU.
“We give up ... 35 points in the first half, counting the blocked kick. And then you give up three in the second half. They didn’t take anybody out. All the same dudes are in there. Don’t you think that’s kind of an interesting deal?
“I’ve really been scratching my head over it. Was there a lack of energy? No. Was there too much? I don’t know. Didn’t seem to be.”
Brown cited two areas where the Wildcats can stand to improve: tackling and temperament.
Tackling was a major issue against the Aztecs. UA coach Jedd Fisch said the Cats missed 16 tackles, up from six the previous week.
“If you tackle, you got a chance to win the game,” Brown said. “You don’t tackle, you got no chance to win the game, period.”
SDSU’s first touchdown was a prime example: Arizona appeared to have the play diagnosed, but linebacker Treshaun Hayward failed to wrap up tailback Greg Bell in the hole. Safety Gunner Maldonado then whiffed once Bell reached the secondary. Fifty-five yards later, the Aztecs had a 7-0 lead.
“There’s fundamental pieces that you do in tackling on a week-to-week basis. We follow that protocol,” Brown said. “Obviously, we’ve got to make an extra emphasis of it this particular week because, obviously, it’s a fundamental that we need to fix.
“That’ll be the goal this week — to make sure we put in the extra time needed on tackling and make the fundamental coaching points of staying inside out, your angles of entry, your clamping ability, getting your head across, not making it an arm tackle, not trying to deliver the knockout punch.
“But the reality is, it’s my responsibility. I gotta do a better job.”
Maldonado said his leverage was off at times against SDSU. Pro Football Focus tagged him with three missed tackles after he had none the previous week. Maldonado already has huddled with safeties coach Chuck Cecil to try to remedy the problem.
The temperament matter isn’t something that can be repped in practice. It requires experience and mettle. The goal, Brown said, is to not succumb to the emotional highs and lows within a game.
He conceded that San Diego State’s opening touchdown had a “deflating” effect on the UA defense. The Wildcats couldn’t stop the wave until the second half.
Even in the BYU game, the scores came in bunches. All three Cougars touchdowns happened within a span of four possessions bridging halftime. The one that didn’t produce a TD consisted of one play to run out the clock in the second quarter.
“We’ve gotta guard against that,” Brown said. “We’ve gotta just stay even-keeled and play.”
Carroll on QBs
Fisch’s decision to elevate Will Plummer to the starting role shook up Arizona’s quarterback room. Gunner Cruz, who started the first two games, now finds himself in a reserve role. Jordan McCloud, who’s been the third QB, could be moving up the depth chart.
Offensive coordinator Brennan Carroll said Cruz took the news as well as could be expected when the team met and practiced Monday.
“He went out and competed like we’d expect him to,” Carroll said. “He went right back to work. He knows he’s gotta make some improvements, and he’s ready to take the challenge.”
McCloud faced a challenge that was different from the other two quarterbacks. Because he had to finish up his degree, the transfer from South Florida couldn’t enroll at Arizona until June. He missed spring practice — 15 opportunities that Cruz and Plummer had to familiarize themselves with the offense.
McCloud couldn’t make up for lost time and started the season running the scout team. He’s expected to get more looks in practice this week.
“These last two weeks he’s made great strides,” Carroll said. “He’s got a couple of chances to perform in an almost-live situation in some scrimmage settings, and he’s done really well.”
As for Plummer, Carroll is eager to see what the second-year freshman can do given a chance to play from the start. Carroll admired the way Plummer “went in there and played free” coming off the bench against SDSU.
“He’s been really consistent,” Carroll said. “He’s got a good grasp of the offense, and he’s ready to go execute it. I know he’s got great rapport with the guys, and they’re excited to see him get a shot this week.”
Defensive end Jalen Harris recorded his first sack of the season vs. SDSU. He had none last year. “I’m just happy for the guy,” Brown said. “The guy’s a hard worker. He’s got tireless energy. ... There were a couple of scenarios he got into that he kind of got moved a little bit. But the good thing about him is, he’s very coachable and you can fix things because he listens. And that’s a great trait.”
Another defensive end, Mo Diallo, saw a significant uptick in playing time (23 snaps) and production (five tackles) over Week 1 (11 and two, respectively). He didn’t get here until mid-August, so a slow start was somewhat inevitable. “That guy’s been dealt a pretty tough hand,” Brown said. “We’re trying to get him ready to play games with minimal coaching. ... But the nice thing is, you see him incrementally starting to get it.”
There’s little debate that receiver Tayvian Cunningham, who also has run for the UA track team, is the fastest Wildcat. Who’s second fastest? “I really don’t know,” Cunningham said with a smile. He mentioned a handful of candidates: Maldonado; receivers Jalen Johnson, Jamarye Joiner and Anthony Simpson; and cornerback Christian Roland-Wallace.