Arizona's distinctive defense a challenge

LOS ANGELES -- Judging by the state of West Virginia's defense since coordinator Jeff Casteel left in January to follow Rich Rodriguez to Arizona, Casteel is a defensive genius.

The Mountaineers have been lit up to the tune of 40 points per game this season, making them the sixth-worst scoring defense in the NCAA. (They gave up 26.7 points per game under Casteel last year.) In 2012, West Virginia has the worst pass defense in the country, with opponents gaining nearly 15 yards per completion and more than 10 yards every attempt.

Casteel's new unit with the Wildcats hasn't exactly been elite, either. Arizona's pass defense is 10th-worst in the country in terms of yards per game, and 37th-worst (83 out of 120) in terms of overall scoring defense.

But it's definitely different than any other defense the USC Trojans are going to face this season. Arizona's 3-3-5 alignment -- commonly known as an odd stack or multiple spread defense, with three linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs -- is known for three big things:

  • 1. It enables teams to more easily use smaller, faster players across their defense than a normal 3-4 or 4-3 would require.

  • 2. It a defense easier for players to understand, relatively speaking, because they're typically assigned a single gap on a given play and told to attack that gap.

  • 3. It can be difficult for opposing offensive linemen to understand pre-snap who they're going to have to block on a particular play.

Generally speaking, the 3-3-5 relies on big plays more than it does stopping teams straight away. It also generally works better against a spread than against a pro-style offense. And, as with any incorporation of any new scheme at any level, it takes time to stick.

USC coach Lane Kiffin said this week that the sticking process has been evident in recent weeks.

"I think on defense they've really started to improve and started to play better," Kiffin said. "You're going to look at overall yards and see some bad numbers, but they are put out there a lot."

Kiffin is right about the defense being on the field a lot. Because the Wildcats have often scored so fast, they rank 105th nationally in time of possession.

Only a handful of college teams run the 3-3-5 regularly, and no NFL teams currently run it as anything more than a gimmick. It'll be the first time the Trojans see it since Kiffin's arrival in January 2010 and the last time until they play Arizona again next season.

"This is really just something they do that's very unusual," Kiffin said. "Most people don't do that in college or the NFL.

"So it's new to us and our guys."