Arizona substantially upgraded their passing offensive personnel this offseason – transfers #7 QB de Laura, #2 WR Cowing, and #84 TE McLachlan, plus high 4-star true freshman #4 WR McMillan – and the Wildcats’ passing attack is now by far the most dangerous aspect of this team. Head coach Fisch has designed a passing structure that gives de Laura plenty of intermediate throws right over the middle that this talented group (plus returning sophomore #5 WR Singer, who rounds out the four primary pass-catchers) is capable of exploiting against both man and zone defenses.
Across all five games this season (excluding garbage time), Arizona has 89 successful designed passing plays vs 92 failed ones, given the down & distance, or a 49% success rate. They have an adjusted 7.8 YPA average and 18% of designed passing plays gained 15+ yards. Those are fairly modest efficiency and yardage numbers, but a pretty good explosive one.
There’s one outlier game in the dataset — week 2 hosting Mississippi St — against whom Arizona’s offensive numbers were abysmal, as the Bulldogs’ defensive line completely wrecked the Wildcats’ blockers and de Laura was constantly scrambling and threw some interceptions. Excluding that game, Arizona’s numbers climb to 53.5% per-play passing efficiency, 8.9 adjusted YPA, and 21.5% explosiveness, which are all somewhat above average numbers.
The pattern that emerges is that this offense thrives on intermediate routes, from 10-20 yards past the line of scrimmage, and that’s why the explosiveness numbers are so high – a substantial chunk of their passes are just over that threshold. Deep shots and screens that go big aren’t a frequent part of the offense, however. Here’s a representative sample of successful passing plays:
(Reminder - after pressing play, you can use the left button to slow any video to ¼ or ½ speed)
- :00 – Usually only one side of the field is active for de Laura, which is fairly obvious here just watching his helmet. He’s got to get this throw out quick because the line, as was typical in this game, is collapsing fast.
- :09 – Sideline routes and corner fades aren’t too common for this offense but McMillan is a matchup nightmare in man, he’s tall with good vertical and a huge catch radius, and de Laura is very comfortable putting the ball high for him.
- :22 – Cal has a massive hole in the middle of their zone structure so the film really pops for de Laura’s favorite type of throw to his favorite receiver, Cowing.
- :42 – The o-line, as is pretty typical for teams undergoing a talent transformation, is going to be the last unit to improve. They get this offense in trouble a lot, like they’re doing here against a pretty poor defense. Fortunately for Arizona de Laura is a pretty good scrambler, and when his team’s not behind and he doesn’t feel compelled to press and play hero-ball he can get some decent gains despite pressure breaking through.
The main reason that Arizona’s passing efficiency isn’t better, despite all this talent and a coach who knows how to use it, is that I very rarely see de Laura get past his first read in the progression. I’m not sure how good he’d be at that in a vacuum, since he’s coming off a high school career and first two years in college in a Run & Shoot system that uses very different reads, but it’s immaterial since his offensive line very rarely gives him the chance to get that far and he tends to scramble pretty readily. Some examples:
- :00 – Not the most aggressive pass rush I’ve ever seen but they cut through the line like butter in this game. I could have chosen any of three interceptions de Laura threw in this game while running around (a couple are real bonkers), but this is fairly typical, a useless dumpoff that can’t possibly convert.
- :13 – This is the third year of watching de Laura’s tape and I’ve never really seen him throw a true deep ball with accuracy. This clip illustrates his sort of funky wind-up and how even when his receiver’s gotten behind the defense he tends to overpower the throw with a full-body release.
- :31 – Cal was more than 30 percentage points more effective playing man than zone against Arizona. Here they’ve simply run in stride with everybody in the pattern; eventually the pass rush gets through and de Laura can’t find an escape.
- :40 – Here in the low redzone with the safeties playing up, it’s much harder for Arizona to find an agreeable passing route for de Laura, and when his first read isn’t there he sort of defaults to running. I otherwise like #77 LT Morgan and think he’s not only the best lineman on this team but one of the better left tackles in the conference, but he commits a hold here because of the scramble.
Those offensive line troubles extend to the run game as well. The Wildcats are somewhat below average in all three stats I track: underwater at 52 designed rush successes vs 56 failures or 48% efficiency, averaging 4.9 adjusted YPC, and fewer than 14% of designed runs gain 10+ yards. I think all three of the primary backs – returner #6 RB Wiley, transfer #32 RB Williams, and true freshman #20 RB Coleman – look pretty good carrying the ball to me, but the line just can’t open any holes for them, and the Wildcats essentially can’t run between the tackles or execute long-developing stretch plays. Some examples:
- :00 – Inside running in the low redzone is by far Arizona’s worst intersection of play type and field position. There’s just no push here, and nobody is getting to the second level to block a backer.
- :08 – The frontside is doing pretty well here, but the backside has to sustain blocks on this play design much longer than they’re really capable of.
- :14 – Here Arizona is trying out a gap scheme, which means precision blocking specific defenders with proper leverage. It’s not happening.
- :21 – Once more in the redzone, and once more they just can’t run between the tackles. This was part of a successful four-play goalline stand by Colorado, which I wouldn’t describe as a particularly stout rush defense.
The backs have been pretty good, however, at outside runs behind some good perimeter blocking, as well as sometimes being able to bounce inside runs outside when they recognize an o-line blocking collapse. The differential is pretty stark – a 35% success rate running inside or on stretch plays, a 72% rate running outside zone or on pitch plays. Playcalling doesn’t seem to have caught onto this yet, however, as 56% of rushing calls are to the former category.
Here’s a representative sample of successful runs:
- :00 – The backside is breaking down here again but Williams has a nice cut in the backfield to step out of a tackle.
- :07 – Great job by Coleman here breaking a couple tackles. Cowing is being extra aggressive in blocking the DB.
- :14 – I don’t think this is a press-and-bend play, I think it’s designed to go inside the tackles but Coleman is wisely bouncing outside because the d-line is eating the o-line’s lunch.
- :33 – Colorado kept doing this, both the DE and LB playing inside with only the safety coming wide outside for contain. Wiley got a lot of yardage on the ground against it without his line really having to block anyone, just accelerating past the DB.
On the podcast, Adam and I talked about an interesting disparity in Arizona’s raw offensive statistics: they’re ranked 22nd out of 131 FBS teams in total yards per game, but only 66th in redzone TD conversion rate. From film study and the theory I bounced off him, I think the reason for this is that their best offensive tools – intermediate passing over the middle and outside running – are taken away by field compression in the redzone, and they’re not able to cash in the inside running typical to high redzone efficiency teams.
With one exception, Fisch’s offseason talent upgrade hasn’t really shown up on Arizona’s defense. The structure is officially a 4-3, but I think it’s more helpful to look at it as a 3-3-5, as they’re usually in a nickel and the front has a big DT over the center and one player who’s listed as a “DL” on the roster but is really playing an OLB who often drops into coverage or even lines up off the ball.
The bright spot in the front has been USC transfer #31 DL Echols, the drop end or quasi-OLB mentioned above. I thought the former 4-star was misused in Los Angeles for years, and it’s been satisfying to see him show exactly why that was this year in Tucson. But the rest of the front simply doesn’t have the beef to stop the run, and one of their better looking transfers, #98 DT Savea from UCLA, left the game last week with an injury and Adam says his status is a “gametime decision”. On top of that the linebacker position is in its third straight year of significant talent shortcomings and it looks like a lot of portal misses, something Adam and I spent some time discussing on the podcast.
The Wildcats have successfully defended only 46 designed rushing plays vs 82 failures, just a 36% rushing defense success rate, and they’re giving up 6.7 adjusted YPC with almost 26% of designed rushes against them gaining 10+ yards. These numbers are more common to see from FCS teams playing Power-5 teams. Here’s a representative sample of poor rush defenses:
- :00 – Mississippi St is an Air Raid offense, with an SEC offensive line.
- :08 – Two backers are following the fullback, and the third is on the cutback lane. The RG comes off the combo to push him out and the C still has the power necessary to clear out the DT on his own.
- :25 – I still really don’t think much of this offensive line, and think their gaudy rushing numbers in this game were more about the Wildcats’ rush defense than the Bears’ quality. Here four of five Cal linemen are missing their blocks, and this should have been an easy stop, but Arizona is literally falling all over themselves to give up a chunk run.
- :32 – Like a lot of d-lines that don’t have a lot of on-paper talent, Arizona tries to make up for it with aggression, and the typical way that backfires is over-running the play. It’s evident here, even as they know a run is coming from the formation and field position, and the Wildcats have an extra lineman in.
Echols has been a pretty consistent presence in almost all of Arizona’s successful run defenses; I don’t have any other statistically significant correlations between the rest of the personnel, play type, down & distance, or field position. Here’s a selection of successful run defenses:
- :00 – A few teams have tried to leave Echols unblocked and simply out-accelerate him. It’s never worked.
- :06 – The RG is assigned to pull around and block Echols on this play, he’s not quick enough.
- :11 – Here the aggression off the snap works, getting inside before the puller can come around. Arizona’s undersized true freshman backer is getting a free shot too because the LT is blocking the wrong guy.
- :18 – Good leverage and power from Echols here, playing the RT perfectly to work the back into a longer path and giving the rest of the defense time to beat him to the corner.
Overall, pass defense has been more respectable. This team likes to blitz a lot, and the majority of their successful pass defenses come on blitz plays. I also think they have one of the better corners in the conference, four-year starter #4 CB Roland-Wallace who’s really maturing in his senior season. Across all five games, the Wildcats have a perfectly even designed pass success rate, 76 successes vs 76 failures, giving up 7.4 adjusted YPA and 14.5% explosives, which are thoroughly average numbers across the board.
Here’s a representative sample of successful pass defenses:
- :00 – The back’s just not reacting quick enough to pick up this blitz, and the ball looks off target because of it. The DB is pretty clearly playing through the back of the receiver, but I believe the flag stays in the wing’s pocket because he thinks it’s uncatchable.
- :06 – This many blitzers means man coverage is really going to have to hold up, fortunately for the Cats this is going against Roland-Wallace who’s capable of recovering from contact and performing the prettiest PBU of Arizona’s season to date.
- :18 – The line is expecting pressure from the other side so this overload blitz surprises them, and it clearly affects the QB who isn’t seeing the open crosser.
- :30 – I’m kind of surprised only one holding flag was thrown on this blitz. I know Strimling’s got a holdout flag in his sock.
The game-by-game pass defense numbers tell a different story, however. They looked like a championship-level team in their opener against San Diego St and last week against Colorado, with a 63% efficiency rate and 9.5% explosives allowed rate. But in the three games in between against Miss St, NDSU, and Cal, the pass defense was decidedly below average – 43% efficiency and 17% explosives allowed.
I suspect that the latter set of numbers is closer to being an accurate picture of this team, because severe QB problems hampered their week 1 and 5 opponents – SDSU started former Duck Braxton Burmeister, and CU started true freshman Owen McCown in his second game ever with a staff that would be immediately fired. It struck me from watching film that Arizona’s defense was simply letting some poor QBs throw bad balls rather than forcing anything in particular, especially if they weren’t blitzing to panic those QBs. Against normal competition, I was seeing holes all over the secondary and a pass rush that, as we discussed on the podcast, just isn’t generating any pressure without blitzing.
Here’s a representative sample of failed pass defenses:
- :00 – That’s a true DE being backed out in underneath coverage instead of participating in a blitz; I don’t really think it helped. The nickel is beat by about five yards when the ball is released.
- :09 – There were five previous I-formation runs on this drive, and I think the defense just got habituated into ignoring the fullback while two different DBs cover the Z-receiver. The backer jumping in “coverage” is amusing.
- :25 – On the other end of the spectrum from blitzing is rushing three and dropping eight into zone. It’s less effective given the talent of the back end of the defense.
- :38 – The real breakdown is nobody taking the back in man coverage, I think that’s supposed to be the freshman backer’s job but he gets distracted by the mesh in front of him. The circus at the end is just for fun.