-- UCLA travels to Tucson to take on the Arizona Wildcats Thursday night. The game will be televised on ESPN at 6:02 PST, with Rece Davis, Jesse Palmer and Craig James calling the action.
-- Arizona is 1-5 on the season, having only beaten Northern Arizona, while losing to Oklahoma State, Stanford, Oregon, USC and Oregon State. It was a pretty brutal schedule, playing against the #9-ranked team in the country (OSU), #6 (Stanford), #10 (Oregon), 5-1 USC, and then an improving Oregon State in Corvallis.
-- UCLA is, of course, 3-3, and need to win 3 of its last 6 games to be bowl eligible.
-- UCLA leads the series 19-14-2, which dates back to 1927. The Wildcats own a 10-8 advantage in games played in Tucson, including the last three clashes in the desert. The last time UCLA has beaten Arizona in Tucson was in 2003, and the last time they beat the Wildcats at the Rose Bowl was in 2006. In other words, the Wildcats have won four straight.
-- That all-time record is the second worst record for UCLA against any Pac-12 opponent, behind its record against USC.
-- The last time UCLA did beat Arizona in Tucson, in 2003, seems like a very long time ago. It was the game that UCLA defensive tackle Rodney Leslie intercepted a shovel pass and returned it 55 yards for what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown.
-- The big news for the Arizona football program was the firing of head coach Mike Stoops last week, midway through this season.
-- Taking over the interim head coaching responsibilities is Arizona's co-defensive coordinator, Tim Kish. Kish has coached for 36 years, and this is his first head coaching assignment. He has been on Stoop's staff all eight years in Tucson as the linebackers coach and then co-defensive coordinator.
-- Stoops looked like he had built Arizona into a good program, in his fifth and sixth seasons in 2008 and 2009 going 8-5. But after going 7-1 to start 2010, he finished 7-6, and then started this season 1-5, which got him fired. Stoops had Arizona in the national rankings for 11 weeks in 2010 and took three consecutive teams to bowl games, matching the school's best string. He, of course, was known for his fiery, sometimes hysterical sideline demeanor. Some close to the Arizona program respected him and others considered him a bit on the crazy side, and the word is that that contributed to his firing.
-- Arizona has had one of the toughest schedules of any team in the country, going back to the second half of last season. After starting out the 2010 season 7-1, Arizona has gone 1-10, with losses in 2010 against #13-ranked Stanford, USC, #1 Oregon, Arizona State and #14 Oklahoma State in the Valero Alamo Bowl.
-- According to Jeff Sagarin, Arizona's schedule ranks as the toughest in the nation through the first seven weeks of the 2011 season.
-- Since Northern Arizona isn't a FBS school, Arizona has lost its last 10 FBS games in a row. What was the last FBS team the Wildcats beat before the skid? UCLA, beating the Bruins at the Rose Bowl October 30th, 29-21.
-- There are some eery statistical similarities beween the two teams. First Downs Allowed: UCLA 23.7 PG, Arizona 23.7 PG (tied for 112th nationally). Redzone Defense: Arizona 91% scoring allowed, UCLA 92% allowed (111th and 113th in the nation). Turnover Margin: UCLA -2, Arizona -2 (tied for 84th in the nation). Missed PAT Attempts: Arizona 5, UCLA 4. Sluggish Starts: In the first quarter, Arizona has been out-scored 55-17, and UCLA 37-14. Time of Possession: Arizona 28:13, UCLA 28:40. Sacks: Arizona 3, UCLA 5 (120th and 115th in the nation).
-- Arizona has played 10 true freshmen so far this season. UCLA has played none. Arizona starts five freshmen, while UCLA starts one (F-back Jordon James).
-- Both teams had a bye week last week.
-- Of course, the big mystery is how the Wildcats will respond in the first game after their head coach was fired.
-- The weather forecast is for a high of 92 degrees Thursday, and mid-80s at game time.
ARIZONA'S OFFENSE V. UCLA'S DEFENSE
There are many college football observers who think that all you need is a great quarterback to have a good team.
Arizona is a prime illustration of that assertion being untrue.
In perhaps the best quarterback conference in the country, the Wildcats have arguably the "best" quarterback in the conference. Yes, that's with a conference that boasts first-round NFL picks Andrew Luck and Matt Barkley. Easily the most productive quarterback in the Pac-12 is Arizona's Nick Foles.
Foles leads the league in passing yards per game (375), with Barkley (317) and Luck (276) trailing considerably. He's ranked 2nd in the country in total passing yards (2,255), behind only Houston's Case Keenum. He's completed a phenomenal 71% of his passes, thrown for 15 touchdowns and only 4 interceptions.
Pretty much picture a taller, stronger and more athletic Keenum. Yes, that should make UCLA fans shudder. In UCLA's season opener, on the road at Houston, Keenum completed 30 of 40 passes, basically completed any pass at will. And Foles is a stud; with a young offensive line he's been taking hits all season and popping back up. Probably what stands out about Foles, even more than just his great accuracy, is his decision-making; he'll check down like an NFL quarterback and find the open receiver.
|Receiver Dan Buckner.|
It doesn't hurt when Foles has the best collection of receivers in the conference. Three of them are among the conference's top ten for receptions per game. The All-American-type guy is Juron Criner (SR, 6-4, 215), who, after some distractions and injuries, is still having a phenomenal year, and is one of the most difficult receivers to defend. Picture a quicker, faster Nelson Rosario who plays hard all the time. But the guy who has more receptions, more receiving yards and more yards per catch is Dan Buckner (JR, 6-4, 220). Last week against Oregon State Buckner had 8 catches for 144 yards, and had an exceptional game – all the way up to dropping a critical touchdown pass in the fourth quarter. But it's clear Foles definitely now has about as much confidence in Buckner as he does in Criner. The two of those guys present tough match-up problems, both being big, strong receivers. Criner suffered a knee injury against Oregon State in the first quarter and never returned. The reports out of Tucson is that he'll play but sources are saying that might just be what Arizona is saying.
But then there are other guys, too: Gino Crump (SR, 6-2, 210) who is no slouch himself, tied for ninth in the conference by averaging 5 catches per game. Then there are the bookend Daves, David Douglas (Sr, 6-1, 205) and David Roberts (SR, 6-0, 205), both of whom have more catches on the season than Criner. There's also freshman Austin Hill (FR, 6-3, 205) who is a long-ball threat.
So, just try to get your mind around the number of receptions: Buckner 33, Crump 30, Douglas 29, Roberts 29 and Criner 26 (one less game). UCLA's leading receiver, Rosario, has 26.
The Wildcats have definitely sacrificed their running game by throwing the ball so much. Arizona has attempted to throw the ball 287 times while only attempting to run 151 times (throwing it 65% of the time). Arizona's rushing attack is last in the Pac-12 and 117th in the nation, gaining just 71 yards per gain. That doesn't mean they don't have good running backs, though. Keola Antolin (SR, 5-8, 195) is a solid ball carrier, tough and hard to bring down. There's a freshman getting some hype, Ka'Deem Carey (FR, 5-10, 190), and he's shown flashes of talent. They'll give it to fullback/H-back Taimi Tutogi (JR, 6-1, 250) to mix it up and on short yardage.
The issue with Arizona's offense is its offensive line. The Wildcats had to replace all five starters from a year ago, so their OL is young and inexperienced, and has been hit by some injuries. They start two juniors, a sophomore and two freshmen. In fact, they really like their two 6-8 freshmen tackles, Mickey Baucus (FR, 6-8, 303) and Fabianns Abbele (FR, 6-8, 305) – for the future, even though right now they're going through growing pains. Because of the inexperience on the OL, the primary job of the Wildcats' running backs is pass protection. Arizona will go to that Power Pistol formation, with the H-back and fullback both offset, and the tailback behind the quarterback – and they'll run and throw out of it. And the OL is the main reason the Wildcat running game just can't get on track.
UCLA's defense has improved, but it still has a long way to go. With Donovan Carter and Sealii Epenesa continuing to get more reps at defensive tackle alongside Cassius Marsh, the DL has done better at plugging the middle. They still gave up 154 yards on the ground to Washington State, which is one of the worst rushing teams in the Pac-12.
UCLA's secondary limped into the Rose Bowl against WSU a week and a half ago, and actually held up decently against the Cougar passing attack. Now, they'll semi-limp over to Tucson to face one of the best passing attacks in the nation (ranked 3rd, gaining 383 yards per game). The Bruins' best cornerback, Sheldon Price, injured his knee against Stanford, and sat out against WSU, but he's back at practice and looking like he'll be ready to go. Veteran safety Tony Dye was still in street clothes as of Monday with stingers, as was starting nickel back Alex Mascarenas because of concussion. And nickel/corner Jamie Graham is out with a knee injury. UCLA will have to rely on Andrew Abbott at the nickel spot, and at corner if Price isn't 100%, and he's proven to be completely able, but redshirt freshman safety Tevin McDonald will see a lot of time.
No-brainer. It's not a great match-up for the Bruins. They've been susceptible to passing offenses with precise, smart quarterbacks who can find the soft spots and seams in their zone. Foles is a master at that. He's among the best few quarterbacks in the country at finding the open receiver. And, UCLA hasn't mounted even an inkling of a pass rush yet this season and you wouldn't expect them to start in Tucson. Especially since UCLA's defensive mindset this season has been bend-and-not-break, and you'd have to think they wouldn't dare attempt to put pressure on Foles, who they probably believe would compensate and pick them apart – and they're probably right. Then, throw in the fact that Price probably won't be 100%, and Dye, Mascarenas and Graham being out, it feels like a schoolyard bully picking on a vulnerable nerd.
Foles likes to throw to his running backs, and throw underneath, and is fantastic at the short and intermediate throws, and that's been UCLA's bane this season. He will, though, look long a few times a game to stretch the field.
What could really make matters worse is if Arizona is actually able to run the ball against UCLA. That's why this is a bad match-up; if UCLA, say, were at least a good rushing defense they could take away Arizona's running game and make the Wildcats one-dimensional. But UCLA isn't, so you can expect Arizona's rushing attack, which is the worst in the Pac-12, averaging just 71 yards per game, to go over that mark Thursday night. That takes so much of the responsibility off of Foles, and limits the chance of him taking hits, which it seems is the #1 priority of every opposing defense so far this season. Quarterback Matt Scott hasn't seen a snap this season since they're trying to redshirt him, so seldom-used Bryson Beirne (SR, 6-3, 235) is the back-up.
The thing is – Foles is really exceptional. If you were afraid of Andrew Luck or Case Keenum, Foles is probably more effective than either. He completes 71% of his passes, and UCLA allows 68% of the passes against them to be completed. That makes for a long night of completions. It's difficult to see the UCLA defense, with its injuries in the secondary, being able to merely bend and not break.
UCLA'S OFFENSE V. ARIZONA'S DEFENSE
Arizona's defense isn't great, by any means. But they certainly aren't as bad as their rankings suggest: 116th in total defense in the nation, 117th in scoring defense, 117th in passing efficiency defense and 100th in rushing defense.
You have to think that those numbers are a bit skewed because of the level of competition Arizona has faced so far this season. They've gone up against Oklahoma State (#2 offense in the nation), Stanford (#16), Oregon (#5) and USC (#36). That will tweak anyone's defensive statistics.
In their last game against Oregon State, they allowed the Beavers to gain 408 yards, 280 passing and 128 rushing, and that was probably a far more accurate representation of the Arizona defense.
|Cornerback Trevin Wade.|
The Wildcats' primary defensive issue has been its defensive line (sound familiar?). They lost three NFL draft picks to graduation after last season, and it's been tough to replace that kind of production. The budding star was supposed to be sophomore defensive tackle Justin Washington (SO, 6-2, 280), but he's had injury problems, recently undergoing minor knee surgery, turf toe and also weight loss. He was a freshman All-American last season but, still recovering from the knee surgery, he probably won't start against the Bruins. It's gotten so bad for Arizona's DL that the other starting DT, Sione Tuihalamaka (SO, 6-2, 280) had an extreme strain of flu and sat out against OSU. He'll be back for UCLA, alongside Jowyn Ward (JR, 6-2, 294), who is starting in place of Washington. They've been missing Willie Mobley, who's been injured all season (UCLA fans might remember Mobley, the transfer from Ohio State). They are young, inexperienced and a bit banged up inside, and it's shown. At end, two seniors are new starters this year, C.J. Parish (SR, 6-2, 245) and Mohammed Usman (SR, 6-2, 245), but there is no way they can replace the production Arizona got last year from Brooks Reed and Ricky Elmore, and especially the pressure those two put on opposing quarterbacks.
Arizona is in a nickel at least half the time, so most of the time there are only two true linebackers on the field. Luckily those two have been solid for them this season, Derek Earls (SR, 6-3, 247) and Paul Vassallo (SR, 6-3, 247), both of whom lead the team in tackles with 41 and are tied for 10th in the Pac-12. They've played all season without projected starter Jake Fischer because of an ACL.
they've had some issues at their nickel back/linebacker spot. True freshman Rob Hankins (FR, 6-1, 220) is in when they want more of a linebacker, but he's struggled. Another true freshman, Hank Hobson (FR, 6-2, 213) is now getting his shot. When they're using the nickel, it's been another freshman, Jourdon Grandon (FR, 6-1, 180), who has been spotty. Mostly the group has struggled in run support.
The strength of Arizona's defense was supposed to be its secondary, but it's been riddled by injuries. Safety Adam Hall has missed most of the season with an ACL, and he's doubtful for Thursday. Projected starting cornerback Jonathan McKnight has also missed the season with an ACL. Trevin Wade (SR, 5-11, 192), who was thought to be one of the best cornerbacks in the conference, has been hampered by a shoulder injury, but he's expected to play. A promising youngster, Marquis Flowers (SO, 6-3, 220), steps in for Hall, but he's inexperienced. Arizona will rely heavily on veteran safety Robert Golden (SR, 5-11, 200). Having to step in for McKnight this season has been a very familiar name for UCLA fans, Shaquille Richardson (SO, 6-2, 190). Richardson has shown flashes, particularly the two interceptions against Oregon State, but opposing offenses have picked on him, and exploited him.
|Prince and Franklin.|
UCLA's offense, obviously, is going to rely heavily on its run game. Johnathan Franklin has been a bit nicked up this season, but he looked like he had gained back a step in practice this week. Arizona's rush defense has really struggled against a zone read offense, so you can expect UCLA to go to it often, giving quarterback Kevin Prince the option to tuck and run. It's a bit risky, given the fact that starting quarterback Richard Brehaut is out with a broken leg and Prince has a history of being brittle. Behind him is the much-heralded true freshman Brett Hundley, who has gotten quite a bit more reps in practice with Brehaut out. UCLA doesn't want to burn Hundley's redshirt, but with Prince running the ball UCLA very well might be forced to play Hundley.
UCLA's passing game was minimally adequate against Washington State with Prince, and you can probably expect it to be just about the same against Arizona. Prince was 12 for 20 for 201 yards against the Cougars, with the playcalling looking more for the short, underneath throws to try to get some of its playmakers, like Randall Carroll, Shaquelle Evans and Josh Smith, the ball out in space.
We'll see if this is a week when UCLA remembers it has tight end Joseph Fauria, or actually, for the first time, gives F-back Jordon James the chance to carry the ball while facing downfield.
You have to give a great amount of credit to UCLA's offensive line. It was the primary concern coming into the season, but it's done very well, producing 194 yards per game on the ground and allowing just 4 sacks in six games, good enough to be ranked 9th in the country in sacks allowed. Before the season, if you had said UCLA was going to get that kind of production from its offensive line you would have said that UCLA would be far better than 3-3.
UCLA gains 194 yards per game on the ground and Arizona gives up 196. I'll go out on a limb and say UCLA will gain about 195 yards on the ground Thursday.
UCLA's game plan will be to run, possess the ball, keep it out of the hands of Foles, minimize turnovers, and score enough points to win. Arizona will clearly know this and stack the box against UCLA, probably going with its three-linebacker set more often and sneaking up safeties into the box. Arizona, even though its defense has been so poor this season, is still very aggressive, and it will blitz – and run blitz – often. It's clearly going to challenge Prince to beat them through the air, but UCLA will probably be able to play smash mouth and wear down Arizona's stacked box.
In this case, with these two teams, that's a misnomer: "Special" teams.
We'll give them this: UCLA and Arizona have two good punters. Arizona's Kyle Dugandzic is first in the Pac-12 and 7th in the nation, averaging 46.3 yards per kick. UCLA's Jeff Locke is 4th in the conference and 20th in the nation, averaging 43.8.
But special teams for these two squads takes a big slip from there. UCLA and Arizona are among the worst in the conference in punt and kick-off return. Ka'Deem Carey, the Arizona freshman, is a bit of a threat, but hasn't busted one. The two teams are also pitiful in terms of place-kicking. In fact, Arizona has been worse than UCLA, if that's conceivable. The returning starter from last season, Alex Zendejas, and JC transfer Jaime Salazar are a combined 2 for 6, which gets them last in the Pac-12. They've also missed 5 PATs so far this season. They have now opted to go with their kick-off specialist, John Bonano, for field goals. This was after Stoops and the Arizona coaching staff joked for weeks about hosting an open tryout.
That's pretty much, in fact, what UCLA did. After its starting kicker Kip Smith struggled at the beginning of the season and now has been out for a while with an injury, they recruited the manager on the UCLA men's soccer team, Tyler Gonzalez. Neuheisel, in fact, had to beg him to join the team. Gonzalez has been solid since taking over the duties, and is adding range in practice.
We've mentioned quite a few things these two teams have in common. Another and very important similiarity is not being able to get their defenses off the field. UCLA is last in the Pac-12 in opponent's third down conversions, allowing a first down 54.8% of the time. Not being able to get its defense off the field has been Arizona's bugaboo all season, sometimes not even forcing the opposing offense into a third down. Both defenses, too, have had a problem with tackling all season.
Both teams have really struggled to get any kind of pressure on the quarterback, with Arizona being last in sacks in the nation, averaging just .5 per game.
The two offenses are similar in a way, too – that they both have something they do very well that can move the ball down the field. Arizona passes the ball well and UCLA runs the ball well.
Combine these offensive characteristics with the defenses' characteristics and you'd have to think it should be a fairly high-scoring game.
If you take into consideration that Arizona's defensive stats are skewed because of the Murderer's Row of offenses they've faced this season, the two defenses are probably pretty close to each other. Both struggle to stop the run, and have been fairly disorganized at times in their pass coverage, and are beset with injuries in their secondary.
I don't personally think UCLA can stop anyone from running the ball, at least decently. So, as we said above, it's a bit disturbing to envision Foles and Arizona's offense being able to do what they do through the air but also being able to run the ball a decent amount.
I also don't personally think UCLA can really mount a consistently effective passing game against anyone.
So, overall in the match-ups, Arizona probably has a slight edge.
Then there are intangibles. The fact that Arizona fired Stoops last week, and they've close practice since and have bunkered down probably isn't good for UCLA. The Wildcats definitely have something to rally around. Plus, UCLA has traditionally struggled in Arizona, being handed some of its most disappointing defeats in Tucson.
It could come down to who has the ball last, or who turns over the ball the least. Arizona was a better team than Oregon State, but turned the ball over four times, which led to 20 of Oregon State's points.
When in doubt, I'll go with the unit that has one of the best passing attacks and quarterbacks in the country, at home in its first game after firing its coach in front of probably a vocal, supportive crowd.