Arizona defense looks to rebound from shaky couple of weeks

Rich Rodriguez hopes his defense gets back on track against Oregon State, which ranks last in the Pac-12 in scoring offense. Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats find themselves in a defensive spiral -- the likes of which haven’t been seen in Tucson in almost 15 years.

Over the past two weeks, the Wildcats have yielded 111 points in losses to UCLA and Stanford. You have to go back to 2001 when they dropped back-to-back games against WSU (48-21) and Oregon (63-28) to get to 111 points allowed in consecutive games. Anything worse than that pre-dates the ‘80s. And frankly, I got tired of looking. Whether a worse two-game stretch exists is irrelevant. The point is this: The Wildcats are in the middle of a historically bad run of defensive football.

Head coach Rich Rodriguez will tell you injuries aren’t an excuse. Coaches are conditioned to say that. Just like sportswriters are conditioned to grab that extra cookie in the pressbox. But excuses can also be reasons -- valid reasons. And it’s more than reasonable to assume that when you lose one of the best defensive players in the country in linebacker Scooby Wright III – and his backup – and his backup – that there is going to be a significant drop off in defensive production and leadership.

That’s a legitimate reason. But it’s not the only reason.

“Some of it is the obvious injury factor,” Rodriguez said. “When you get hit at one position, it’s probably tougher than if you had guys at multiple positions. When you’re losing, it sounds like excuses … two of the guys that got hurt were also guys we used in some of our different fronts, our four-man fronts. So it’s like losing four guys instead of two guys.

“Certainly we haven’t executed well or tackled well or gotten off blocks. Everything is fixable from a scheme standpoint. Obviously from a health standpoint, the guys who are in there need to step their play up.”

For a team that was flirting with the top 15 just two weeks ago, the turn of events has been jolting. However, Arizona’s next three games come against the three teams below them in the latest Pac-12 Power Rankings. More importantly, the offenses they’ll see over the next three weeks have been some of the least productive in the Pac-12 so far.

The stretch opens this week with the Oregon State Beavers -- fresh off their bye week -- coming to town. OSU ranks last in the Pac-12 in scoring offense. Following that (remember, Arizona doesn’t have any bye weeks this season), it’s a trip to Boulder (the Buffs rank eighth in scoring offense) and then a visit from Washington State which is 10th in offense.

“I think a lot of guys are doing their best to step up to fill in those spots,” said safety Tellas Jones. “We need to improve our communication and being on the same page. I think every week and in practice we are moving in the right direction and getting better at that.”

Oregon State, however, isn’t without offensive potential. There is a lot to be excited about with true freshman quarterback Seth Collins, who has accounted for eight touchdowns this season -- five in the air and three on the ground. He’s leading the Beavers with 306 rushing yards and averages 5.4 yards per carry. Rodriguez, no stranger to the versatile quarterback, said slowing Collins down is going to be a chore.

“He has four games of film, and he might be the fastest quarterback we play all year,” Rodriguez said. ”I have been really impressed with him. They do some similar stuff that we do and some other things as well. It is a completely different plan than what we saw last week so everything that we worked on last week is going to be different than everything we are working on this week. That is the challenge for us defensively, we certainty have to play better. We haven't played well in a couple of weeks so it is a challenge. It doesn't look like any of the guys who were out, defensively last week will be back. We know what we have so we have to put it into positions and make plays.”