Arizona football ready for fans return, wary of SDSU pass rush


Jedd Fisch wants the Arizona Wildcats home games to be a four-hour party.

Fisch began his college football coaching career in Florida, which plays an annual neutral venue game against Georgia, known as “The World’s Greatest Outdoor Cocktail Party.” Arizona vs San Diego State won’t be a party of this magnitude, but it should at least be an enjoyable reunion – especially since the AU hasn’t played a home game fans could attend since November 2019.

All of this assumes, of course, that the Aztecs don’t spoil the party. At least one aspect of their game could be the proverbial turd in the punch bowl.

San Diego State has an excellent pass rush. What is its power? Pro Football Focus credited the Aztecs with incredible 48 quarterback pressure against New Mexico State last week. That was twice as much as PFF gave Georgia, who beat Clemson quarterback DJ Uiagalelei’s snot.

The Aggies attempted 56 passes. They allowed five bags. If you assume their other six quarterback runs were by design, that would mean the Aztecs put them under pressure on 78.7% of dropouts. If you don’t, it’s still 71.6%. Both numbers are incredibly high.

PFF credited SDSU with 13 quarterback hits. Aztecs coach Brady Hoke scored 18. Again, either is a lot.

“They got past the quarterback,” said Pac-12 Networks analyst Yogi Roth, who will call Saturday’s game.

Related: Arizona’s offensive line struggled at times to protect passes in the season opener loss to BYU last week. The Wildcats gave up 17 presses and four sacks. Their party of five crashed.

“We did pretty well,” said UA offensive coordinator and line coach Brennan Carroll. “But if you give up the bags, it doesn’t matter.”

How do the Aztecs go about getting into so much trouble? How will the Wildcats respond? Let’s take a closer look

Mix and mix

San Diego State is playing a 3-3-5 defensive pattern that dates back to the days of Rocky Long.

As part of his preparation for the broadcast, Roth asked the Aztecs’ current defensive coordinator, Kurt Mattix, to describe the underlying philosophy in a way “that I can share with my mother on TV.” Mattix replied, “At the end of the day, we’re trying to put the top 11 athletes on the field.”

“And that’s really what it is,” Roth told The Star, “guys who can mix and mingle between different positions.”

Thirteen SDSU defenders registered at least one push last week, per PFF. Second tackle Patrick McMorris wasn’t among them, but he’s a key figure in the disappointment Mattix and Hoke aim to create.

McMorris plays the “Aztec” position, which is akin to the “Lobo-Back” position that Brian Urlacher played under Long in New Mexico or the “Viper” which is part of the plan of AU defensive coordinator Don Brown. It’s a cross between a linebacker and a safety, and it’s like having the queen on the board.

“You don’t know where the guys are from,” Roth said. “You will see this guy (McMorris) line up for the middle safety third, you will see him line up for the middle linebacker, you will see him put the advantage.”

McMorris intertwines with a front six featuring interchangeable pieces. Each of its starting limbs is listed at least 6 feet 2 inches. All but one weigh at least 230 pounds.

Fisch said the SDSU ranked in the top 10 in the nation last season in blitz percentage and stunt percentage. (A stunt is when two defenders intersect as they attack the offense in the hopes of creating confusion or a failed mission.) If Brown is Dr. Blitz, Mattix could be Professor Pressure.

“You’re going to have a ton of movement, a lot of activity,” Fisch said. “They’re not afraid to play for zero cover (no deep security). I certainly expect them to. They are aggressive.

Coordinated efforts

Arizona’s offensive line has struggled to decipher and beat blitzes since the middle of the 2019 season. While many players are the same, Roth is cutting down on everything that has happened before this year. New coaches, new system, new perspectives.

Seventeen presses in 62 snaps blocking passes against BYU is definitely more than Fisch and Carroll would prefer. But everything is relative. There were times, especially last season, when the offense could barely work because the quarterback was under siege.

This year’s opening didn’t go that way. Starting quarterback Gunner Cruz completed 34 of 45 passes for 336 yards. The UA offense had only one three-and-out.

The line only broke a handful of times. But they were expensive.

“Each of the five guys had a thing or two that we couldn’t do,” Carroll said. “So we’re going to fix them and keep working on them. “

“We have had infiltrations,” Fisch said. “Sometimes pass protection looks like this because the ball is held too long. Sometimes they win.

Fisch attributes much of the blame for beating the blitz to his quarterback and receivers. When asked how play calls or schematic adjustments might help the line, Fisch said, “We can get the ball out faster. We can start there.

Did Cruz sometimes hold out against BYU for too long? Probably. But any good passing attack is a coordinated effort.

“You have to be able to trust what you see, you have to be able to trust windows and you have to be able to believe that you are where you are supposed to be as a receiver,” Fisch said. “One of the main rules for our wide receivers is, ‘Be where you are meant to be when you are meant to be there. This allows the quarterbacks to let the ball out of their hands faster. “

The best preparation for the offense for the home opener might be the defense it has seen daily since the spring. Brown throws the equivalent of a rave with each practice.

It could be a party at Arizona Stadium on Saturday night. But it won’t be a surprise party.

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