(AP) — Arizona's defense has struggled over the past three weeks, missing tackles, botching assignments, failing to get many turnovers.
OK, so maybe it was against three straight Top-10 opponents, but it doesn't get any easier with Southern California and Marc Tyler coming up next.
The Wildcats (1-3, 0-2 Pac-12) have struggled against the run this season, allowing 233.5 yards per game, last in the Pac-12 and 114th nationally. Oregon's LaMichael James set a school record with 288 yards against Arizona in the Ducks' 56-31 win last week and Tyler, who's averaging 101 yards per game, set his career high with 160 yards against the Wildcats last season.
"He's a big, physical back, and he runs well," Wildcats senior linebacker Paul Vassallo said of Tyler. "We're definitely going to have our hands full, but we're up to the challenge."
Against Oregon, the Wildcats missed tackles and assignments, and forced no turnovers. Part of the problem is youth. Arizona has numerous underclassmen in its defensive rotation and three players — defensive end Lamar De Rego, nickel back Jourdon Grandon and safety Mark Watley — made their first career starts against Oregon.
"We've got guys playing before they probably should be playing," Arizona coach Mike Stoops said. "That's the problem with playing young players — they just don't understand the whole system. When guys start moving around, understanding their fits, against Oregon, you get out of position, they're going to make you pay with a back like that."
This week, Arizona will have six underclassmen as projected starters and they'll need to play well against USC (3-1, 1-1), a team that averages 422 yards of offense per game.
"We are playing a lot of young guys, but they're more than capable," Vassallo said. "We have great athletes out here. That's not an excuse."
Stoops said the secondary played well for the most part, but the defensive line needs to improve. The Wildcats have struggled in forcing turnovers, registering sacks and coming up with big negative-yardage plays.
Arizona's defense has two interceptions this season, but had its last pick on Sept. 8 against fifth-ranked Oklahoma State. The Wildcats have three sacks this season, but the last one was also against the Cowboys and opposing defenses have sacked Wildcats quarterbacks 12 times. Arizona also has yet to recover a fumble.
"We haven't been getting any turnovers at all," senior cornerback Trevin Wade said. "I think that's something we need to do. We need to work hard, and when we can make our plays, make our plays."
Injuries have impacted the defense.
Defensive tackle Justin Washington, who has made 12 career starts, didn't start against Oregon. He has been limited since he lost weight from a stomach issue during the offseason, Stoops said. Safety Marquis Flowers missed the Oregon game because of a sprained knee, but is expected to play this week. Safety Adam Hall, who suffered an ACL tear in the spring, is expected back soon, possibly for the Oregon State game Oct. 8.
The youthfulness of the defense and rotation of new players into the lineup has made it difficult to find leaders to take over and make big plays.
"I know we're young, but that's not an excuse to not play this game the way it should be," defensive line coach Joe Salave'a said. "Mainly for the guys up front, we've got to play physical, concentrate on stopping the run and do whatever it takes. We do that, that's a start."
There's also the mental side. There's a big difference between playing in high school or even against teammates in practice, which can make for a tough adjustment for young players once the games start.
"It's more of just calming down and just concentrating and just handling your job," senior defensive end C.J. Parish said. "Too many people were out there trying to do other people's jobs."