There was an expectation through the offseason that Arizona's offense would slide a bit after losing senior quarterback Matt Scott to graduation. Scott had a great year for the Wildcats in 2012, and aside from junior running back Ka'Deem Carey (5'10, 207), was arguably Arizona's most valuable player. Through the first four games of this season, Arizona's offense was much more one-dimensional, with senior quarterback B.J. Denker (6'3, 184), Scott's replacement, struggling to execute the passing offense of Rich Rodriguez.
However, over the last four games, Rodriguez has done a much better job of playing to Denker's strengths, and, as a result, the offense has taken off to an extent. Denker is much more comfortable throwing the ball on the run, as opposed to in the pocket, so in recent games, Denker has rolled out on about half of his throws. He's more comfortable rolling to his throwing side, so that has been an emphasis for the Wildcats, but they've mixed in enough rolling out to the right to keep defenses from cheating. Over the last four games, Denker has thrown for seven touchdowns against just one interception, and has actually completed 63% of his passes—a great number for him, after he completed just 46% through the first four games.
|Quarterback B.J. Denker.|
His elevated play in the passing game has added another dimension to Arizona's offense, which was already a very effective running attack. Ka'Deem Carey is, statistically, the second best running back in the Pac-12, and when you watch him, it's clear that the stats don't lie. In fact, oftentimes, he gets hit within a yard or two of the line of scrimmage, but his very good strength and balance allows him to generate significant yards after contact. He combines so many aspects of what you want in a running back, with plus attributes in speed, vision, balance, strength, and acceleration. Arizona's offensive line is just OK, so it's astounding that he's been able to put up the numbers he has this year.
The Wildcats run primarily out of a spread, with the typical amount of zone read running that is standard among spread offenses these days. Denker, with his new ability to throw on the run, has added a passing element out of their read offense, and his main target over the last few games has been big senior wide receiver Terrence Miller (6'4, 233). Miller has 15 catches over the last four games after having just three through the first four games. He's a big body, obviously, but he has surprisingly good acceleration. He'll drag with Denker on his rollouts, and is frequently the dumpoff target when nothing is open deep. Freshman Samajie Grant (5'9, 173) has also emerged as a considerable threat in the passing game, working primarily out of the slot. Grant has good speed, and has shown an ability to get open over short distances. Freshman Nate Phillips (5'7, 177) rounds out the primary receiver rotation. Phillips has been reliable this year, and has shown a propensity for generating yards after the catch. Junior Garic Wharton (6'0, 169), arguably Arizona's fastest receiver, provides the deep threat for Rodriguez's offense.
The offensive line for Arizona, like we said above, is a decent, but not great unit. There's a good amount of experience, with one sophomore, three juniors, and a senior among the starters. The two tackles, junior left tackle Mickey Baucus (6'8, 305) and junior right tackle Fabbians Ebbele (6'8, 311), have started nearly every game since 2011, and have done a nice job of protecting Denker and setting the edge for roll outs. On the interior, Arizona has been a bit more of a mixed bag. The Wildcats have two new starters at left guard and center, which has led to a few breakdowns throughout the year. Sophomore Cayman Bundage (6'2, 267) starts at left guard and junior Steven Gurrola (6'2, 291) starts at center. At right guard, the Wildcats have another long-time starter in senior Chris Putton (6'4, 284), who has missed just a few starts over the last few years with injury. All told, Arizona returns 108 starts among its starting offensive line, which is a considerable number when you put it in context of UCLA's offensive line.
UCLA's defense showed very well against California, Stanford, and Oregon, but had a bit more of a lackluster game against Colorado this past week. It's understandable, actually, because the leader of the defense, Eric Kendricks, missed the game, which pushed most of the on-field call duties onto true freshman Isaac Savaiinaea and fellow linebacker Jordan Zumwalt. UCLA didn't fit its gaps perfectly, with Zumwalt and Myles Jack in particular looking like they were having issues knowing where to be. With the linebackers a bit out of sync, the entire defense suffered. Colorado, being a pretty bad team, wasn't able to fully take advantage, but it's going to be very important for UCLA to get a fully healthy Kendricks back this week. The early word is that he'll have a good chance to start and play this weekend.
The defensive line, as it has been asked to do many times this year, worked primarily to maintain a pocket and force Colorado's quarterback to throw. Ellis McCarthy has played two consecutive very good games, which might lead one to believe that the light is starting to come on for him. Kenneth Clark has secured the starting nose tackle job, and has done a very good job. It's especially impressive that he has been able to steal the job from a senior, and returning starter, in Seali'i Epenesa. Eddie Vanderdoes has started the last few games, and has also looked good at times. Cassius Marsh didn't have a big game against Colorado, and it'll be interesting if McCarthy can steal some of his and Vanderdoes' time now that he has shown some real ability over the last two games.
UCLA's defense showed some elite-level ability against California, Stanford, and Oregon, so we're going to treat the Colorado game as an outlier. Against Arizona, we expect that talent to show itself yet again, particularly if Eric Kendricks is fully ready to go. More importantly, we expect that UCLA's scheme will show itself, once again, to be well-suited to square off against a spread-oriented, running-based attack.
Against Nebraska, Utah, Nevada, and Oregon, UCLA has shown an ability to create a pocket and force strong running quarterbacks to throw the ball from the pocket. Denker, who is a decent thrower on the run, is much less effective when he is stuck in the pocket, with a tendency to get happy feet. This is one of those games, like many this year, where we wouldn't expect UCLA to blitz much, rather attempting to contain Carey and Denker's running game while forcing Denker to throw.
Ultimately, we think the Bruins are stout enough up the middle, especially if Kendricks comes back, and quick enough to the edge that they should be able to contain, to a certain extent, Arizona's running game. Then, given how much Denker has struggled as a pocket passer this year, we'd have to anticipate that if the Wildcats are forced to use him in such a way for a good portion of the game, they'll struggle to move the ball downfield. If there's a remotely close analog among defenses Arizona has faced this year, UCLA is probably most similar to Washington, in terms of speed, and the Huskies were able to force Denker to stay in the pocket. Denker responded with a miserable 14 of 35 performance with two interceptions. The Bruin defense may be better than Washington, so we suspect that Denker could be due for a similar performance.