Of the games that marked tangible progress for Jake Browning during his freshman season as the Washington Huskies’ starting quarterback, his performance against Arizona might have been most encouraging.
On Halloween night last year, Browning threw for 263 yards and four touchdowns in a 49-3 rout of an injury-depleted Wildcats team at Husky Stadium. Browning looked sharper than he had all season, and he did it after missing the previous week’s game because of a shoulder injury.
And while the Huskies enter Saturday’s 7:30 p.m. game at Arizona — their Pac-12 opener — as double-digit favorites, the challenge of solving the Wildcats’ defense will be different from when Browning picked them apart last year.
After Arizona finished tied for 106th in the country in scoring defense, coach Rich Rodriguez fired defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel and hired a name familiar to UW coach Chris Petersen — Marcel Yates, who coached defensive backs under Petersen at Boise State from 2006-11 and worked the past two seasons as Boise State’s defensive coordinator.
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“It’s a completely different scheme,” Browning said Wednesday.
So as the Huskies prepare for their trip to the desert, they’re also preparing for a rejuvenated defensive attack, one orchestrated by someone Petersen knows well.
Though it isn’t quite the same as what Yates ran at Boise State.
“It’s just different than certainly what it was when I was with him way back when. It was different than it was last year when he was at Boise,” Petersen said of watching Arizona’s first three games this season. “It’s only been three games, but it’s different. … That’s probably the biggest surprise, just watching tape.”
For one thing, Boise State had heftier defensive linemen, while the heaviest Arizona starter goes 271 pounds — and the Wildcats’ starting nose tackle, fourth-year junior Parker Zellers, is listed at 247 pounds.
“Those guys are really, really quick and athletic up front,” UW offensive line coach Chris Strausser said. “They try to take advantage of the fact they’re not playing with 320-pound guys.”
Arizona also plays coverages that are different from Yates’ Boise State defenses, UW offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith said, but “what’s similar is those guys play with great effort. They fly around, and they’re an aggressive style of defense.”
Through three games, Arizona, with a depth chart that lists five senior starters and four juniors, ranks 78th nationally in yards per play allowed at 5.51. The Wildcats rank 53rd in scoring defense at 22.3 points per game, giving up 31 points to Grambling State and 28 to Hawaii in recent weeks.
Their best defensive performance, points-wise, was an 18-16 loss to Brigham Young in their season opener.
“The guy’s a good motivator,” Smith said of Yates. “He’s good in schematics, they give you a lot of different looks. You can see it on tape in the first three games, that defense is flying around. BYU is trying to play a physical brand of ball, and they’re matching up with that fine, and then these other teams are trying to spread them out a little bit. It’ll be a good challenge for us.”