Ferocity Deserts Desert Swarm Arizona’s Once-Dominant Defense Has Become Porous In ‘97

Arizona linebacker Chester Burnett struggles for answers as he sifts through the rubble of a defense that was once among the nation’s most feared.

“I’m not really sure what’s wrong,” Burnett said Thursday.

The Wildcats are still in shock from last week’s 58-28 home loss to Washington, but maybe they shouldn’t be surprised.

The loss marked the fourth time this season that Arizona (3-4) has given up at least 28 points. From 1992-95, a span of 47 games, the Wildcats held all but five opponents to fewer than 28.

The bottom fell out last season, when Arizona slumped to eighth in total defense among Pacific10 Conference teams.

“We’re still a good, physical team,” Burnett maintained. “Last week, things just kind of got out of hand.”

The loss evoked memories of the 56-14 defeat to Arizona State in last year’s season finale and the 40-27 loss to UCLA last month. Still, Arizona ranks second among Pac10 teams in total defense, mostly because the Wildcats have remained effective against the run. But coach Dick Tomey is hardly impressed.

“The statistics are really misleading,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve played that way. We’ve had some good games, but we’ve just given up a lot of big plays for the season.”

Now would be a good time to reverse that trend, considering Saturday’s opponent. To beat 10th-ranked WSU in Martin Stadium, the Wildcats will have to over come the Pac-10’s most explosive offense.

And they’ll have to do it without sack leader Mike Szlauko, who could be done for the season after suffering a back injury against the Huskies.

Several other Arizona starters have been slowed by injuries, including Burnett (bruised knee) and standout defensive tackle Joe Salave’a (hamstring).

“The real difference between us and Arizona right now is the injury factor,” WSU coach Mike Price said. “We’ve eluded the injuries and we’re healthier than we were for the UCLA game to start the season.”

Burnett, Salave’a and cornerback Chris McAlister are considered three of the Pac-10’s best players at their positions, and each played a significant role in Arizona’s 36-24 victory over WSU last season.

Burnett made 13 unassisted tackles, including two sacks and two tackles-for-loss, and was subsequently named Pac-10 defensive player of the week.

Salave’a left a lasting impression on WSU’s interior linemen, while McAlister sealed the outcome by returning an interception for a touchdown in the final minutes.

That game, played 55 weeks ago in Tucson, is of little relevance to Tomey.

“Right now, the guys are just so embarrassed about last week that they’re really looking forward to getting another chance to play,” Tomey said.

WSU notes

Defensive tackle Gary Holmes will return to the starting lineup after a oneweek absence. Holmes was held out of last week’s 63-37 victory over California after missing several practices with a sore back… . Brad Nessler, Gary Danielson and Dean Blevins will call the game for ABC Television… . In addition to his usual film study this week, Price said he has broken down each of WSU’s last five games against Arizona. Three of those games were decided by a field goal… . Arizona has won four straight in the series. WSU’s last win was in 1992 (23-20)… . Arizona’s top two running backs, Trung Canidate and Leon Callen, will miss the game with injuries. Backup Kelvin Eafon carried 23 times for 140 yards and three touchdowns against the Huskies… . Price, on being perceived differently because of his 6-0 record: “I know most fans think I just started coaching this year, but I have been doing this for a while and I really haven’t changed too much.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: NUMBERS GAME Points per game allowed by Arizona since 1992 (not counting OT):

Year PPGA Record 1997 29.9 3-4 1996 23.5 5-6 1995 18.1 6-5 1994 15.8 8-4 1993 13.4 10-2 1992 9.8 6-5-1

This sidebar appeared with the story: NUMBERS GAME Points per game allowed by Arizona since 1992 (not counting OT):

Year PPGA Record 1997 29.9 3-4 1996 23.5 5-6 1995 18.1 6-5 1994 15.8 8-4 1993 13.4 10-2 1992 9.8 6-5-1

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