Arizona Preview

UCLA travels to Tucson to take on an Arizona team that has a powerful rushing attack and a statistically very good defense...

FACTS AND FACTORS

• UCLA travels to Tucson to take on the Arizona Wildcats Saturday at 7:00 p.m. PST. The game will be telecast by ESPN, with commentators Joe Tessitore, Matt Millen and Maria Taylor calling the action.

• UCLA is 6-2 (3-2 in the Pac-12) and ranked 16th in the country.

• Arizona has an identical record of 6-2 and 3-2 but is unranked.

• UCLA leads the all-time series 20-15-2, which goes back to 1927. Arizona won five in a row before UCLA beat the Wildcats last year in the Rose Bowl, 66-10.

• The Bruins haven't won in Tucson in a decade, not since the 2003 season (24-21). In fact, UCLA was on a streak in Arizona before that, winning four in row, with the last loss previously coming in 1996.

• UCLA has certainly had some demoralizing defeats in the Tucson desert. In 2005, the 8-0 Bruins, ranked 7th in the country, lost to the Wildcats, 52-14. In 2011, UCLA lost in Tucson, 48-12. In 1992, the 11th-ranked Bruins lost to the unranked Wildcats in Tucson, 20-3. In 1989, 22nd-ranked UCLA lost to un-ranked Arizona, 42-7.

• In fact, a ranked UCLA team has only won in Tucson once in the last 25 years, in 1998 (52-28).

• Arizona is led by head coach Rich Rodriguez, in his second year in Tucson, with a record at Arizona of 14-7. Rodriguez is considered a pretty intense guy, and has had some controversy follow him through his career. His departure from West Virginia for Michigan in 2007 was awkward, at best, and then, at Michigan, he recorded the worst season record in school history (3-9) and was never really accepted. Several players left the program and criticized Rodriguez, and then in 2010, the NCAA levied sanctions at Michigan for the skirting of NCAA rules by Rodriguez's program. Rodriguez had a tumultuous three years in Ann Arbor, and was let go in 2011. He worked as a TV analyst for most of the 2011 season, and then was hired by Arizona in November of 2011. Last year, in his first season, Rodriguez led the Wildcats to an 8-5 record and a win over Nevada in the New Mexico Bowl. He's known for his spread option offense.

• With both teams being 3-2 in conference, whoever wins this game would get a significant boost toward competing for the Pac-12 South title. Arizona State currently sits atop the Pac-12 standings at 4-1, so the loser of UCLA/Arizona would fall two games behind ASU, and be unable to win a tie-breaker against the other. Both UCLA and Arizona still have yet to play ASU, so the winner of this weekend's match-up could control its own destiny with a win over ASU. One thing, however: Arizona still has to play Oregon, which you'd have to chalk up in the loss column, so a loss this weekend against UCLA would almost certainly mean 4 losses in the Pac-12 for the Wildcats and no chance at the Pac-12 South title.

• Last year's trouncing by the Bruins included Johnathan Franklin setting UCLA's all-time career rushing record, and UCLA totaling 611 yards of offense.

• Arizona's star running back, Ka'Deem Carey, said on the Petros and Money radio show that Arizona remembers the 2012 whipping and it's ready for payback. It was the last game that Carey, who leads the nation in rushing (153 yards per game) didn't rush for 100 yards.

• The father of UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley is former Wildcat running back Brett Hundley Sr., who lettered in 1986.

• UCLA went 5-0 against the Pac-12 South last season, and it's off to a 2-0 season so far in 2013 (with wins over Utah and Colorado). Arizona, ASU and USC are the Pac-12 South teams that remain on UCLA's schedule.

• Jim Mora is 6-4 on the road at UCLA, and 4-4 in Pac-12 road games.

• UCLA is 12-3 under Mora when scoring first, and 13-0 when leading at half.

• UCLA has set a record for most true freshmen (18) playing in a season. There has also been 15 redshirt freshmen that have seen action.

• UCLA matched its school record total of seven true freshmen position starters against Colorado – the record that it set against Oregon the previous week. If you count punter Sean Covington it would be eight true freshmen starting the last two games. The starting lineup the last two weeks has also included seven sophomores.

• UCLA is now bowl eligible with 6 wins on the season.

• It's the first time UCLA has opened a season ranked and remained ranked through the first 10 rankings since the 2001 season.

• The Bruins are favored by 1.

• The weather in Tucson for Saturday calls for a high of 82 degrees, and it should be in the mid-60s at the 7:00 p.m. game time.

Arizona Offense vs. UCLA Defense

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.
Denker has been a much more effective thrower, and as a result, more opportunities have opened for him in the running game. When he rolls out, more often than not, he has thrown to a receiver running to the same side at medium depth. Typically, that has meant that the linebacker or safety assigned to cover him has had to cheat a bit toward the receiver, which has allowed Denker more running room. Denker is a dangerous runner, with good acceleration and vision. He's averaging about six yards per carry this season, and over the last three games has five rushing touchdowns.

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.

Cassius Marsh.
The secondary struggled as well Saturday, and actually suffered a spate of injuries, none of which seem to be particularly serious. Fabian Moreau went down with what appeared to be a knee injury, but returned to practice Tuesday, and Anthony Jefferson got dinged up a bit himself, but returned late in the game. The scheme was designed for the secondary and linebacker to make plays in coverage, and generally, the secondary failed to do so. It's the first game this year where you'd say that the secondary struggled in coverage, so it might just be that it was a bit of an outlier.

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.

ADVANTAGE: UCLA

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 (that was, to a certain extent, assisted by monsoon-like conditions in Seattle). The Bruin defense may be better than Washington, so we suspect that Denker could be due for a similar performance.

UCLA's Offense vs. Arizona's Defense

Arizona's defense is one of the more interesting that UCLA will face this year. It's a 3-3-5 defense used by Jeff Casteel, the second year defensive coordinator for the Wildcats who previously coached at West Virginia. Casteel's version of the 3-3-5, like Rocky Long's, can pressure from a variety of positions and angles, but so far this year, Casteel hasn't been able to generate much of an actual pass rush. Arizona's defense has largely been successful this year, though, thanks in part to the variety of looks and coverage schemes Casteel is able to call out of the base defense.

You can also make the argument, though, that Arizona has played a fairly weak schedule, with dominant defensive performances against Northern Arizona, UNLV, and something called UTSA. The Wildcats also faced Washington, the one really credible offense they've faced, in the middle of a monsoon, which helped to limit the scoring of both teams, and played Utah when Travis Wilson couldn't throw the ball. Against USC, which doesn't have a good offense, Arizona allowed 7.3 yards per play in a 38-31 loss. The Trojans do run a pro-style offense, which can create problems for a 3-3-5, which is designed to combat spread offenses, but that game has to be a concerning data point for the Wildcats. So, there's an argument to be made that Arizona's defense, while statistically very good, allowing just under 21 points per game and around 372 yards per game, might be a bit overrated.

In Casteel's 3-3-5, perhaps even more so than in a 3-4, the nose tackle position is an important one. Senior Tevin Hood (6'0, 302) mans the spot for the Wildcats, and generally, his job is to keep the center occupied and, if possible, occupy at least one guard as well so that Arizona's linebackers can run free at ball carriers. Hood has been generally pretty good at holding the point this year. Next to him, the Wildcats are a bit undersized for a three man front, with junior Reggie Gilbert (6'4, 261) manning one side and senior Sione Tuihalamaka (6'2, 269) manning the other. Inasmuch as a team with 10 sacks can have a pass rusher, Gilbert holds the title, having generated two sacks this year. Oddly, though the defensive line hasn't generated many sacks, they have been able to get upfield for tackles for loss, with Hood getting 4, Gilbert generating 4.5, and Tuihalamaka generating five. Senior Justin Washington (6'2, 246) will also work in at both end positions significantly. Behind Hood, Arizona really doesn't have much sizeable depth, with the next heaviest defensive lineman a relatively lean 272 pounds.

At linebacker, the Wildcats have some very good talent. Freshman strong side backer Scooby Wright (6'1, 230) is Arizona's leading tackler, and has been very good in the run game all year. Senior middle linebacker Jake Fischer (6'0, 221) and senior weak side linebacker Marquis Flowers (6'3, 233) round out the starting three. Fischer might be the best tackler on the defense, and will likely be in contention for All Pac-12 honors at the end of the season. Flowers and Wright have both shown the ability to get up field in the running game. They have good speed on the edge, and thanks to the nature of the scheme, both Flowers and Wright have been able to freelance a bit more than they would otherwise.
Linebacker Jake Fischer.


On each side of them, though, the Wildcats will also have their Spur, junior Tra'Mayne Bondurant (5'10, 198) and Bandit, junior Jared Tevis (5'11, 195). These are the two positions that really make Casteel's 3-3-5 work. The positions are linebacker/safety hybrids, with both players having the size to be run-stopping defensive backs while also displaying the coverage ability needed to guard receivers. Bondurant has been exceptional this year, playing strong in the run game while also leading the team in interceptions with three. Those are the two positions that really make the defense unconventional, and make it a bit harder for a quarterback to read easily.

In the secondary, the Wildcats have a familiar face in senior cornerback Shaquille Richardson (6'1, 188). Richardson, if you'll remember, had a fun few weeks at UCLA before being kicked out of school along with Paul Richardson and Josh Shirley. He's had a mostly good career at Arizona but has had some issues, actually getting removed as a starter last year for a couple of games after struggling in coverage. He has the measurables you'd want from an NFL corner, though, and, when he's on, can be a very tough corner to throw against. Junior Jonathan McKnight (5'11, 171) mans the other corner spot and at the one real safety position, junior Jourdon Grandon (6'0, 195) is the starter.

UCLA's offense had a troubling few weeks from the Cal game through the Oregon game, but the Bruins are hoping that the offense is starting to click again thanks to the 45 point outburst against Colorado this past week. In that game, Brett Hundley played better than he did at any point since the first half of the Utah game, and the hope is that he is breaking out of the slump that culminated with a 64 yard performance against the Ducks. He was helped, in part, by an offensive scheme that called for him to throw the ball more downfield than he had in the previous three games. Of the offensive scheme opened up because Hundley was looking better in practice. There's a classic chicken-or-egg argument going on with the UCLA offense that probably doesn't have a definitive answer.

Both the quarterback and the offensive scheme, though, seem to have been affected, to some degree, by the issues that UCLA has had along the offensive line all season. Heading into the Arizona game, UCLA is without its top three tackles for the third straight game. Xavier Su'a-Filo, who was in the midst of another All-American-type campaign at left guard, was forced to switch to left tackle after injuries to Simon Goines, Torian White, and Conor McDermott. Scott Quessenberry, who was ticketed to redshirt this season as the backup center, instead has found himself starting at left guard. On the right side, Alex Redmond and Caleb Benenoch are both true freshmen, with Benenoch only starting after Goines' injury. And, at center, Jake Brendel has had an up and down season as he has battled a shoulder issue as well as a case of the yips on his snaps.

Damien Thigpen.
Shockingly, though, the offensive line hasn't actually played that poorly this season. In fact, even with all of the injuries over the last few games, the unit, as a whole, seems better in terms of pass blocking. Run blocking hasn't been as great, but there are a variety of reasons for that. The line just hasn't been able to open consistent holes since Su'a-Filo moved to tackle, for one, but UCLA has also had to deal with more and more stacked boxes since the passing game went missing. The other issues for the run game have only exacerbated the problem of UCLA losing Jordon James to an ankle injury. James is expected to miss this week as well, leaving a combination of Paul Perkins, Malcolm Jones, and Damien Thigpen to hold down the fort. Thigpen had a breakout game last week and seems poised to take on an even larger role as he continues to recover from offseason knee surgery.

Among the receivers, UCLA has gotten generally good play, perhaps none better than that of Devin Fuller, who scored three touchdowns last week against Colorado. Fuller is leading the team in receptions and has shown an ability to get open in both short and long passing situations. He's the closest thing UCLA has to an explosive playmaker in the receiving corps. Shaquelle Evans has been dependable so far this year, and Jordan Payton has had moments where he's flashed some real ability. The team is still waiting for the light to turn on for Devin Lucien, who is still getting back to form after undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery last season.

ADVANTAGE: Even

This matchup is the tougher one to call, for many different reasons. First, it's difficult to say with certainty exactly how good Arizona's defense is. The Wildcats haven't played any really good teams this year, and their two losses are to probably the two best teams they have faced in Washington and USC. They beat Utah, but the Utes were without starting quarterback Travis Wilson for most of the game.

Second, UCLA's offense has been a completely different unit since halftime of the Utah game. Against Stanford and Oregon, the Bruins generated just 24 points, and against California, which has a miserable defense, the Bruins were able to score just 37 points. This past week, UCLA's offense had a fairly good day, with 45 points and over 400 yards of offense, but the yardage total is a far cry from the numbers the Bruins were putting up earlier this year.

Generally, we think Arizona's unconventional defense could cause some trouble for Hundley, especially if he's not out of his slump. We'd have to suspect that the Wildcats will also use the strategy that many teams have used against UCLA this year—that is, Arizona will likely stack the box, put pressure on Hundley, attempt to stuff the run, and force Hundley to throw. If Hundley has actually broken his slump, as we suspect might be the case after his performance against Colorado, he could have some easy throwing opportunities in the early going against the Wildcats.

It's going to be an interesting matchup, one that hinges on Hundley's ability to make throws. If UCLA has been self-scouting, they'll know that most teams, at this point, expect them to run the ball predominantly since Hundley is struggling. As we've been saying for weeks, it might be time for UCLA to air it out and thrown downfield. If they do, they could catch the Wildcats in some favorable positions early on.

Special Teams

Arizona's field goal kicker, senior Jake Smith (6'2, 201), has a big leg, with the ability to hit field goals all the way out to 55 yards. He can be a bit scattershot at times, but he provides a safety net for the offense when it sputters within the 40. Sophomore punter Drew Riggleman (6'2, 207), who is in his first year as the starter, has been generally pretty good for the Wildcats. He has only two touchbacks in 38 punts this year, and has nailed 13 inside the 20.

Sophomore Johnny Jackson (5'10, 180) has handled the majority of punt returns this year, but Arizona will also bring on Nate Phillips at times. Between the two of them, they've averaged about 8 yards per return this year, with a long of 25. Neither is probably a significant threat to return one for a touchdown.

Kickoffs are much the same story. Four different players have taken kickoff returns this year, but lately, the team has settled on Samajie Grant and sophomore Jared Baker (5'8, 188), both of whom have good speed but haven't shown off incredible vision.

For UCLA, Ka'imi Fairbairn has been fairly good most of the year, but did have a miss on Saturday for the first time in six games. He's been fairly reliable from 45 yards and in, making all but one of his attempts from that distance this year. Sean Covington is ahead of the curve for a true freshman punter, having already had at least one game where he was UCLA's best offensive threat (usually, that only starts to happen in a UCLA punter's second year).

In the return game, UCLA will have to do without Steven Manfro at kick returner due to an ankle injury. Devin Fuller looks to be the primary backup, and he showed nice explosion during his time there on Saturday. Damien Thigpen may also start to get a look on kick returns now that he has made his way back nearly to full health.

After starting the season strong, Shaquelle Evans has struggled as a punt returner over the last few games, frequently trying to do too much with balls that should probably be fair caught. You have to feel for Evans, because he's likely thinking that he needs to make something happen because the offense has struggled so much. He was much better, though, when he wasn't trying to force things.

ADVANTAGE: Even

Prediction

Arizona has been a house of horrors for UCLA over the years. Two years ago, a trip to Tucson marked the beginning of the end of the Rick Neuheisel era, and in 2005, a 52-14 beatdown at the hands of a bad Arizona team provided the first blemish for a UCLA team that had started the season 8-0. This year, UCLA is hoping to kick start its final third of the regular season with a win over the Wildcats that could help to put the Bruins in the driver's seat in the Pac-12 south.

Defensively, we can easily see a scenario where UCLA is able to bottle up Arizona's attack. Through three quarters against Oregon, UCLA's defense was very good against a much better rushing offense. UCLA probably has more speed on defense than Arizona has on offense, and should be able to eliminate many of the horizontal aspects of Arizona's offense (the Denker rollouts specifically) and force Arizona to throw downfield from the pocket.

The trick for UCLA to ensure the win will be on the offensive side of the ball. If UCLA trots out the same offensive strategy and execution it used against Oregon and Stanford, it's going to be very difficult for the Bruins to win the game. Arizona, as with every team UCLA has faced since Utah, will likely try to stack the box and force Hundley to throw. If the Bruins still opt to run the ball and nibble at the corners of the field, they could be looking at another game where they gain fewer than 400 yards of offense and struggle to score points.

We just don't see it happening, though. Against Colorado, UCLA showed a little friskiness downfield, with Fuller running much more vertically than he did against either Stanford or Oregon. We have to imagine that, given the relative success UCLA had against the Buffaloes, the Bruins will double down on that strategy and try to focus more on getting the passing game going. If Hundley has gotten his feet back under him, which we expect, to a certain extent, that he has, the Bruins should be able to score enough points against the Wildcats to pull out the necessary victory to keep Pac-12 south hopes alive.

UCLA 31
Arizona 24

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