Facing the Nation's Leading Rusher a Measuring Stick for Arizona Defense

Kyle KensingContributor IDecember 30, 2013

Nov 23, 2013; Tucson, AZ, USA; Oregon Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota (8) runs the ball under pressure from Arizona Wildcats linebacker Marquis Flowers (2) during the first quarter at Arizona Stadium. Arizona beat Oregon 42-16. Mandatory Credit: Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports
Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Among the most important pieces of Rich Rodriguez’s rebuilding blueprint for Arizona was luring defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel away from West Virginia. Tuesday in the AdvoCare V100 Bowl, Casteel’s unit faces the unique challenge of containing the nation’s leading rusher, Boston College running back and Heisman Trophy finalist Andre Williams.

Williams is college football’s first 2,000-plus-yard ball-carrier since 2008. He reached that most elusive of benchmarks with a hard grinding style, fighting through tacklers and keeping his legs turning for extra yards.

The contrast of Williams’ hard-running style and Arizona’s speed-predicated defense promises to dictate the direction of Tuesday’s bowl clash.

Casteel’s absence from Rodriguez’s staff at Michigan was conspicuous when, in 2010, the Wolverines were among the worst BCS conference scoring defenses.

But their reunion didn’t exactly usher in a return to the glory days when West Virginia was a winner of 58 games and two Big East Conference championships in six seasons. Injuries and transfer, coupled with the schematic changes the 3-3-5 stack meant, made 2012 a trying year for the Wildcats defense.

With players shifting positions, like Marquis Flowers moving from safety to linebacker, Arizona was the nation’s No. 104 scoring defense.

Desert Swarm it was not. But a second year under Casteel’s guidance has seen vast improvements in all phases of the defense, shaving nearly two touchdowns off its per-game yield.

“Experience in the system helped, but we’re able to rotate more guys into the lineup,” Rodriguez said on his teleconference call following the Oregon win, which was Casteel’s masterpiece.

Arizona is still far removed from the defenses of the 1990s, but Casteel’s system has found a new kind of swarm: Utilizing the speed on which the 3-3-5 formation is founded to swarm to ball-carriers. More depth has bolstered that effort, as the Wildcats successfully did against Oregon. They must replicate the effort against Williams and Boston College.

Ka'Deem Carey garnered the majority of headlines following the Wildcats’ 42-16 rout of Oregon on Nov. 23—and deservedly so. But Arizona became just the third defense since the 2010 season to hold the Ducks below 20 points, and the last to do so was the vaunted Stanford defense in 2012.

Arizona succeeded against Oregon in part because of its ability to contain the rush. The Ducks managed 198 yards on the ground, 85 below their season average.

The injury running back Byron Marshall suffered early on certainly didn’t hurt Arizona’s defensive effort, and that has bearing on Tuesday’s contest. Williams is coming off a shoulder injury that limited him in the Eagles’ regular-season finale at Syracuse.

Williams’ health and ability to establish himself early are paramount for the Eagles offense, because Arizona wants to put the game on quarterback Chase Rettig.

The senior and four-year starter has played admirably, enduring multiple staffing changes during his tenure at Boston College. Ryan Day is his fourth offensive coordinator in as many years. His experience has helped Rettig limit mistakes, as the six interceptions he’s thrown this season are his fewest in any one season.

With linebackers Flowers and Jake Fischer working to limit Williams, Sione Tuihalamaka and Reggie Gilbert must generate pressure up front to take Rettig out of his comfort zone.

The Wildcats are at their best forcing passes into coverage. Arizona is among the top defenses in the Pac-12, and No. 23 nationally in interceptions with 16. Cornerback Shaq Richardson could draw the assignment on Boston College’s top wide receiver, Alex Amidon.

Richardson’s responsibility is keeping Amidon from getting deeper than the safeties, which includes Tra’Mayne Bondurant, Arizona’s top turnover-creator in the secondary.

But the starting point for everything Arizona needs on defense is limiting Williams. Containing the nation’s top rusher would mark a major milestone in the long-term vision Rodriguez has for Arizona, and serve as a reminder of why adding Casteel to his staff was such a priority.


Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.