Jedd Fisch wants Arizona Wildcats home games to be a four-hour party.
Fisch began his college football coaching career at Florida, which annually participates in a neutral-site game against Georgia that’s known as “The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.” Arizona vs. San Diego State won’t be a bash of that magnitude, but it at least should be an enjoyable get-together — especially since the UA hasn’t played a home game that fans could attend since November 2019.
This all 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. How potent is it? Pro Football Focus credited the Aztecs with an astonishing 48 quarterback pressures against New Mexico State last week. That was twice as many as PFF gave Georgia, which beat the snot out of Clemson quarterback DJ Uiagalelei.
The Aggies attempted 56 passes. They allowed five sacks. If you assume their other six quarterback runs were by design, that would mean the Aztecs pressured them on 78.7% of dropbacks. If you don’t, it’s still 71.6%. Both numbers are insanely high.
PFF credited SDSU with 13 quarterback hits. Aztecs coach Brady Hoke counted 18. Again, either is a lot.
“They got after the quarterback,” said Pac-12 Networks analyst Yogi Roth, who will call Saturday’s game.
Related item: Arizona’s offensive line struggled at times in pass protection in last week’s season-opening loss to BYU. The Wildcats surrendered 17 pressures and four sacks. Their party of five was crashed.
“We graded out pretty well,” UA offensive coordinator and line coach Brennan Carroll said. “But if you're giving up sacks, it doesn't matter.”
How do the Aztecs go about inviting so much trouble? How will the Wildcats RSVP? Let’s take a closer look
Mix and mingle
San Diego State plays a 3-3-5 defensive scheme whose origins date to the Rocky Long days.
As part of his broadcast prep, Roth asked current Aztecs defensive coordinator Kurt Mattix to describe the philosophy behind it in a way “that I can share with my mom on TV.” Replied Mattix: “Ultimately, we’re trying to put the best 11 athletes on the field.”
“And that's really what it is,” Roth told the Star, “guys who can mix and mingle among different positions.”
Thirteen SDSU defenders registered at least one pressure last week, per PFF. Second-leading tackler Patrick McMorris wasn’t among them, but he’s a key figure in the deception Mattix and Hoke aim to create.
McMorris plays the “Aztec” position, which is akin to the “Lobo-Back” spot that Brian Urlacher played under Long at New Mexico or the “Viper” that’s part of UA defensive coordinator Don Brown’s scheme. It’s a cross between a linebacker and a safety, and it’s like having the queen on the chess board.
“You don't know where guys are coming from,” Roth said. “You’ll see this guy (McMorris) line up at deep-middle-third safety, you'll see him line up at middle linebacker, you’ll see him set the edge.”
McMorris intermingles with a front six featuring interchangeable parts. Each of its starting members is listed at at least 6-foot-2. All but one weighs at least 230 pounds.
Fisch said SDSU ranked among the top 10 in the nation last season in blitz percentage and stunt percentage. (A stunt is when two defenders crisscross as they attack the offense in the hopes of creating confusion or a missed assignment.) If Brown is Dr. Blitz, Mattix might be Professor Pressure.
“You're gonna get a ton of movement, a lot of activity,” Fisch said. “They're not afraid to play cover zero (no deep safety). I certainly expect them to do that. They're aggressive.”
Arizona’s offensive line has had difficulty deciphering and defeating blitzes since the middle of the 2019 season. Although many of the players are the same, Roth discounts whatever happened before this year. New coaches, new system, new outlook.
Seventeen pressures in 62 pass-blocking snaps against BYU undoubtedly is more than Fisch and Carroll would prefer. But it’s all relative. There were times, especially last season, when the offense barely could function because the quarterback was under siege.
This year’s opener didn’t play out that way. Starting QB Gunner Cruz completed 34 of 45 passes for 336 yards. The UA offense had only one three-and-out.
The line broke down only a handful of times. But they were costly.
“Each one of the five guys had one or two things that we can't do,” Carroll said. “So we'll correct those and keep working on them.”
“We had some seepage,” Fisch said. “Sometimes pass protection looks like that because the ball’s being held too long. Sometimes they win.”
Fisch puts much of the onus for beating the blitz on his quarterback and receivers. Asked how play-calling or schematic adjustments could help the line, Fisch said: “We can get the ball out quicker. We can start there.”
Did Cruz hold onto it too long against BYU at times? 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 trust that you are where you're supposed to be at the receiver position,” Fisch said. “One of the main rules for our wide receivers is, ‘Be where you're supposed to be when you're supposed to be there.’ That allows quarterbacks to let the ball out of their hands quicker.”
The offense’s best preparation for the home opener could be the defense it has seen daily since spring. Brown throws the equivalent of a rave every practice.
It might be a party at Arizona Stadium on Saturday night. But it won’t be a surprise party.