Despite a new starting quarterback for the third straight year and a new group of running backs to replace departed Ka’Deem Carey, the Arizona offense under Rich Rodriguez is humming along like it typically does. Rodriguez has a knack for creating elite offenses from inexperienced players and spare parts, and this year’s Arizona team is a great example of that.
The Wildcats, like so many other offenses in the Pac-12, like to go up-tempo, and it’s very slightly more of a run-heavy scheme than the last two teams UCLA has faced, but still properly called a pass-first offense. Much of the offense is predicated on the read-option, with redshirt freshman quarterback Anu Solomon (6'2, 205) making the decision to hand off, run the ball himself, or pull it and pass. Most of the plays Arizona runs have run/pass options built into them, making it a difficult offense to anticipate.
Solomon has been a very effective quarterback all year, executing virtually every element of Rodriguez’s offense well, which has made the Arizona offense look very formidable. He’s not an incredible runner, but he’s good enough that teams have to respect the threat of him running out of the zone read, and then, as a thrower, he’s been mostly very accurate all year, with a strong enough arm to make the vast majority of throws. He hasn’t gotten rattled by pressure this year, but that’s mostly due to the quick drops and quick passing that Arizona uses, preventing pressure from getting to him very often. The system Rodriguez runs is very forgiving for young quarterbacks, but Solomon has done a more than credible job running it.
Arizona has a very good set of receivers as well – if not quite as good as California’s, only a small step below. Redshirt sophomore Cayleb Jones (6'3, 215), the transfer from Texas, has been Arizona’s most explosive receiving threat this year. His height makes him capable of winning jump balls down the field, and his athleticism and speed is very good for a receiver his size. He’s joined by redshirt senior Austin Hill (6'3, 212), who’s returned this year after sitting out last year with a knee injury. Hill was an elite receiver before he got hurt, and he’s picked up more or less where he left off, with maybe just a touch less speed. He famously made the big catch to beat California on the Hail Mary, and has been a very good second option in the receiving game behind Jones. Both players have great size, which makes them a tough matchup on fades. The two quick receivers, redshirt senior Nate Phillips (5'7, 180) and sophomore Samajie Grant (5'9, 177), have been very effective over the middle and on underneath routes this year, giving Solomon good dump-off options. Redshirt sophomore Davonte Neal (5'10, 173), redshirt junior David Richards (6'4, 213), and redshirt sophomore Tyler Griffey (6'3, 195) factor considerably into the rotation as well. Neal is a considerable threat with the ball in his hands, and seems to be getting healthy.
Arizona’s offensive line is probably one of the more experienced units in the Pac-12. The Wildcats two three-year starts at tackle, with redshirt senior Mickey Baucus (6'8, 293) manning the left tackle spot and redshirt senior Fabbians Ebbele (6'8, 315) at right tackle. On the interior, junior Cayman Bundage (6'2, 281) started all of last year at left guard, and senior Steven Gurrola (6'2, 286) started all of last year at center. The one new starter is redshirt freshman Jacob Alsadek (6'7, 298), who brings great size and run-blocking ability to the right guard spot. There have been some injuries throughout the year, with Bundage most recently going down with a knee injury, but he returned a looked decent against Washington State. If someone goes down, redshirt junior super-sub Lene Maiava (6'5, 301) will likely step in. He’s filled in at both guard and tackle in the past, and has been very effective. Generally speaking, it’s an experienced unit that does a good job of giving Solomon a clean pocket to work from.
UCLA’s defense made some subtle changes against California two weeks ago that raised some hopes for the pass rush, with Owamagbe Odighizuwa moving inside to the three-technique and Takkarist McKinley playing considerably for the first time. Those changes, though, didn’t hold up through the Colorado game, with McKinley not playing much, and Odighizuwa not playing nearly as much inside as he did the previous week. Noticeably, UCLA’s pass rush was not as effective – some of that had to do with how quickly Colorado got the ball out, but much of it also had to do with the inability of the front four to consistently beat blocks and get into the backfield.
|Jaleel Wadood, Myles Jack|
UCLA’s secondary did not have a great day last week against Colorado. Jaleel Wadood, the freshman safety, seemed to get exposed as an inexperienced player for the first time. He missed a few tackles, blew a few coverages, and just looked a bit out of sync. This game will be big for him in terms of his ability to move past some of the struggles he had last week.
Generally, UCLA’s defense looked good to start the game last week, but struggled through the second half, looking pretty clearly fatigued after the offense stagnated. It’ll be important for the defense to build on the progress it showed through the Cal game and the first half against Colorado, and not continue the issues they showed in the second half last week.
The Wildcats do many of the things offensively that UCLA has struggled with this year. First, Solomon is enough of a running threat out of the zone read that edge containment is going to be a big key for UCLA. Second, Arizona runs an up-tempo scheme, and, aside from one anomalous effort against Arizona State, the Bruins have struggled when teams have gone up-tempo this year, especially when caught in a poor personnel package. Third, Arizona does a good job of getting the ball out quickly, and facing those kinds of offenses has led to UCLA running pretty conservative defensive schemes that don’t bring much pressure.
So, there are a lot of factors stacked against UCLA’s defense in this game. To get some kind of pressure on Solomon, we’d have to imagine McKinley would need to see increased time. To avoid some of the edge containment issues, UCLA will need to figure out some solution that involves fewer snaps for Deon Hollins, who has struggled with containment this year. To deal with the tempo, UCLA will have to more often be in personnel packages that can deal with both the run and the pass, which, again, probably means more McKinley.
If you’re picking up what we’re putting down, getting McKinley in the game more will be key for UCLA. Even if he is a bit undisciplined against some of the edge running Arizona will do, it’s still probably better than the known quantity of UCLA’s defensive ends this year. Still, he likely will be somewhat undisciplined, assuming he does get considerably more time, so UCLA will probably have some issues with Arizona’s attack regardless.
It’s a tough matchup – there’s no real getting around it. If UCLA’s defense can manage to put together a few solid stops in each half, that would probably be a solid showing. Anything more than that should put UCLA in good shape, as long as the offense can hold up its end of the bargain.