Arizona started 7-1 and its defense ranked among the nation's best. Then the Wildcats lost their final four games, and the defense struggled mightily, particularly against the run.
The Wildcats, nonetheless, ended up in the Valero Alamo Bowl, where they will take on No. 14 Oklahoma State, which only ranks No. 1 in the nation in total offense, with 537.6 yards per game.
The Cowboys will be the third top-10 offense the Wildcats have faced this year.
Moreover, Arizona just lost a pair of defensive coaches to Colorado: co-coordinator Greg Brown and defensive line coach Mike Tuiasosopo. Joe Salave'a is already on board taking over the defensive line, but the secondary will be mostly supervised by head coach Mike Stoops heading into the bowl game.
Further, Stoops has announced that Tim Kish, who shared the coordinator duties with Brown this year, will be the solo defensive coordinator in 2011.
So it seemed like a good time to check in with Kish as he gets ready for the Cowboys potent attack and prepares for the future in Tucson.
So co-coordinator Greg Brown is gone: How does that change your job heading into the Alamo Bowl?
Tim Kish: It just requires me to do a little bit more prep work than I would do normally. But everybody is pitching in. Coach Stoops is pitching in, Ryan Walters, our graduate assistant who helped Greg with the back end is doing an awesome job right now. We are just all rallying around each other and making sure we dot our 'Is' and cross our 'Ts' in our game preparation.
There won't be any "co" with the defense next year. Coach Stoops has said you'll be the coordinator alone. How do you feel about running the defense next year?
TK: It really isn't going to change a whole lot from what we've done here in the past. We'll continue to use our base package, which we've had our previous six years with Mike's brother Mark. The thing we did this year is experiment a little bit with more man coverage and some man-pressures and things we hadn't done previously. We're going to continue to grow but we aren't going to ask our guys to do things that they are not capable of. The key to any good defense is adapting to your personnel. As that progresses, we'll progress.
Were there any challenges specific to being a co-coordinator that you won't face now?
TK: To be honest, I couldn't have had a better co-coordinator to work with. There were no egos. Greg and I kind of plotted out how we were going to handle game preparation each week. Obviously, we overlapped each other in a lot of things we did, so it was an ideal situation for both of us, I felt. It's just unfortunate it only lasted one year. Now you've got to go back and kind of reorganize your thought process. But it's not going to change dramatically. It just puts a little more onus on me being more involved in the full picture, especially in the passing game. I look forward to that challenge.
Let's talk about this season: What's your overall feeling on how the defense played?
TK: I felt like we started strong out of the gate. We were playing with some good momentum. We had some teams there at the latter part of the season that we probably didn't match up as well with as we did earlier in the season. There's no excuses, though. We just didn't play as well. We didn't have that energy and enthusiasm that I thought we played with in the first two-thirds of the season. Part of that was the types of offenses we were facing. But there are no excuses on this end. We knew what we were getting ourselves into. We didn't respond the way I expected us to respond at the end of the season.
What went wrong with the run defense late in the season?
TK: I don't know if I can point the finger at any one thing. For whatever reason, we weren't playing as physically as we were early in the season. Everybody wears down; everybody gets bumps and bruises. Those are no excuses for anything that went wrong with the run defense. We just weren't getting downhill as well at the second level, fitting our gaps. We weren't holding onto the double-teams and the scoop blocks as well as we did early in the season. It was a combination of a lot of things. We didn't tackle very well. We missed a lot of tackles at the end of the season. There were a lot of things we have to take a good, hard look at in the offseason and see what we need to do to shore up. We know we want to get bigger and more physical up front. We're not a huge team up front, and yet we have got to be in position where we can control those gaps with our front-seven. It's just something we are going to have to take a good hard look at and evaluate and critique and see what we can do to help that situation next year.
Who exceeded your expectations this season?
TK: I expected the ends [Brooks Reed & Ricky Elmore] to play well and they did. D'Aundre Reed was the biggest surprise of the three [ends] up front. At the end of the season, we were actually starting him as one of the top two guys [ahead of Elmore]. All three of those guys were as advertised. We knew what we were getting out of them over the course of the year. I think [DT] Justin Washington had his moments in there as a freshman D-lineman in there. He played well at times but he wore down a little bit there and got nicked up at the end of the season and didn't play as well. Mana Mikaele up front at nose guard had a pretty consistent year. I was pleased with his effort all year long. Obviously, with the three linebackers, the unknown was across the board. But I think Paul Vassallo exceeded my expectations, all of our expectations, because he was as much a defensive end as he was a linebacker in junior college. He was the most consistent at linebacker. Jake Fischer adds a good dose of athletic ability and flexibility in there. Derek Earls was fairly steady as well. From that standpoint, I was fairly pleased with that group. In the back end, to be honest it was the young guys who garnered the attention. [CB] Shaquille Richardson had some really good moments in there, but he's still learning. Jonathan McKnight is going to be a hell of a corner. He's just coming into his own. And so is [SS] Marquis Flowers. The future bodes pretty well for that back end right now.
Tell me about Oklahoma State's offense.
TK: The All-American wide receiver doesn't drop a ball [Justin Blackmon]. He catches anything within 10 feet of him. He's just smooth. He looks so natural out there running routes. He has a great knack for finding grass and sitting down in the zone and beating man coverage. And the quarterback [Brandon Weeden] has played consistently all year long for them. They are real solid up front -- three juniors, a sophomore and a redshirt freshman starting for them up front. They know how to zone block. They know how to pass protect. It's hard to get to [the QB] because they are not doing a lot of five-step drop. They're getting the ball quickly out of the quarterback's hands. Those two other receivers complement Blackmon because they're steady. I don't know if people call them possession receivers but I know they run good routes and catch the ball as well. Then once you look at all that, they've got a bevy of running backs -- they can throw any one of three at you -- and they can pound the ball on you. We're expecting them to try to run the ball early and then play-action pass us like they do everybody else. We can't give up a lot of after-contact yardage, whether it's in the passing game or run game. So we've concentrated on trying to shore up our tackling.
You guys lost your final four games. What do you think the guys mindset is after the disappointing finish?
TK: We've put that behind us. No question about it, we laid an egg last year at the Holiday Bowl last year. These kids have a lot of pride. You can say, 'What if, what if, what if,' but that's not what we do. We have to learn from our mistakes. We certainly didn't finish the season the way we wanted to. Could we have won a couple of those games? Absolutely. But that didn't happen. Our mindset is totally on Oklahoma State and getting prepared as well as we can for this bowl game, playing hard for 60 minutes.