Arizona Wildcats ride defensive unit into Pac-12 play against Stanford

Caption 1: Arizona Wildcats safety Dalton Johnson is emerging as a key player in the Arizona Wildcats’ revitalized defense through the first three games of the season. (Photo by Kevin Langley/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

PHOENIX – In three years, Jedd Fisch has orchestrated a remarkable transformation of the Arizona Wildcats defense by instilling a newfound resilience and adaptability in the team. His strategic vision and coaching expertise have revitalized the unit, propelling them to unfamiliar success on the gridiron.

Fisch and fans have taken notice after a 2-1 start, with the Wildcats’ only defeat coming in a one-touchdown loss to Mississippi State. “To out-gain a team (Mississippi State) by 125 or 130 yards is a job well done by the defense,” Fisch said after the game.

The Wildcats face an easier defensive test Saturday – but a test nonetheless – against Stanford University, which is coming off an upset home loss to Sacramento State University. The Hornets dictated the game with defensive pressure and their ability to sack Stanford quarterback Justin Lamson. The Wildcats hope for a repeat performance at Stanford Stadium.

“(The defensive is) accustomed to tight ends stretching the field,” Fisch said in reference to Cardinal senior tight end Benjamin Yurosek, who has 13 catches and a touchdown this season. “They’re accustomed to what we do on offense where we flex them out. He plays the outside receiver position, he plays inside, he plays in the core.”

The Arizona defense could have its way with what Stanford brings to the table.

Linebackers Jacob Manu and Justin Flowe will be expected to carry the defensive load, along with defensive back Martell Irby and safety Dalton Johnson, who both have shown growth and promise in the secondary through the first three games of the season.

“The communication that goes on between the linebackers and the front is critical to the success of the team,” Fisch said. “And I think a lot of that starts with Jacob Manu and his ability to communicate with the whole front. As well as Dalton Johnson and his ability to communicate with Jacob and the front four on exactly how he wants the defense set.”

In last Saturday’s 31-10 win, the Wildcats defense suffocated the Miners’ run game by allowing only 49 yards and 332 total offensive yards. On average this season, the defense has allowed an impressive 6.5 points per game at home, leaving no doubt that the Arizona unit has bought into defensive coordinator Danny Nansen’s philosophy.

The defense-first mentality of the Wildcats’ barricade is sparked by fundamentals and a willingness to adjust on the fly – both qualities not seen in years past. And it all starts with the linebackers.

Manu and Flowe are the anchors of this improved defense. The duo leads the Pac-12 in tackles per game, with Manu averaging nine and Flowe recording a little more than eight.

“With Jacob, what I’ve noticed the most is that he’s like a plant you keep watering,” Fisch said. “He wants more information. He wants to learn about offensive players (and) he wants to be able to be the type of player that can recognize things that happen before they happen, and utilize formations to his advantage.”

Manu and Flowe both play with a sense of hunger. They make winning plays and excel in communication, which allows the defense to get a feel for the opposing offense.

In the past two games, both linebackers posted breakout games. Flowe dominated the Bulldogs in Mississippi by racking up 12 tackles in just 27 snaps. Fisch even described Flowe as bringing “the juice” at all times, especially in competitive games. The high praise for Flowe does not end there. Fisch believes that the defense is going to play Flowe more as the season goes on.

Manu continued his dominance against UTEP by finishing with one tackle, 5 assists, and a sack. The humility of Manu speaks volumes about his character as a person and an athlete.

The defense also leans heavily on Johnson, who is another player elevating his game. With eight solo tackles and a forced fumble on the season, Johnson has evolved as a leader through his versatility.

Playing behind Manu and Flowe has allowed Johnson a chance for growth and improvement.

“Our communication is really good,” Johnson said. “I feel like we’re really connected when we’re on the field. We’re able to tell each other what happened here, what should’ve happened here and get it fixed pretty quick.”

Not only has the defense been revamped, but the offense has also shown maturity and growth over the past few weeks.

Sophomore quarterback Jayden de Laura displayed his talent and how dangerous he can be when playing with poise. After throwing four interceptions the week prior against Mississippi State, he impressed by completing 79% of his 29 passing attempts and throwing for three touchdowns and, most importantly, no interceptions.

Not only did de Laura have a bounce-back game, but sophomore wide receiver Tetairoa McMillan dominated again for the third straight week. McMillan railed in six catches for 89 yards and scored his third touchdown of the season, which leads the team.

McMillan has been a matchup nightmare for cornerbacks across the country. With a 6-foot-5 frame, great speed, strength and the ability to make tough catches in traffic, Tucson has a national star in the making.

In the matchup against Mississippi State, he starred with eight catches for 161 yards and a touchdown and played a large role in helping the Wildcats cut into a 14-point deficit before halftime.

Compared to the rest of the receivers in the Pac-12, McMillan is up there with the best of them. He ranks fourth in yards and yards per game and third in touchdowns. Washington’s Rome Odunze and Colorado’s Xavier Weaver slightly lead McMillan in receiving stats within the conference.

To put into perspective McMillan’s dominance, de Laura brags about McMillan’s athletic ability.

“He’s probably the most athletic person I’ve ever been around,” de Laura told reporters after Saturday’s game.

Stanford is in for a tough game against the Wildcats. Facing an emerging offense and defense that’s starting to find its identity as the season goes on, it will be a tough turnaround for the Cardinal coming off a loss.

Stanford’s weak offensive line should struggle against the play of Manu and Flowe, who both look to cause as much chaos as possible to force turnovers and confuse the receivers.

A win Saturday would set up momentum ahead of the Wildcats’ matchup against No. 8 Washington Sept. 30.

“We have to win this week,” Fisch said. “The importance of this game is when you’ve gone there, you haven’t beaten the Cardinal in six different attempts. We got to give them our best shot.”