Game Week: Full Arizona Preview

OCT. 30 -- UCLA and Arizona both have good offenses and mediocre defenses, which should lead to an exciting game at the Rose Bowl Saturday...

Facts and Factors

• The Arizona Wildcats come to the Rose Bowl Saturday, with the game slated to kick off at 7:30 and be televised by ESPN.

• Arizona is 6-1, and is a half-game out of first place in the Pac-12 South with a conference record of 3-1. They are ranked 14th/15th.

• Arizona beat Cal on a walk-off Hail Mary, 49-45, and then it’s claim to fame this season was its big, upset win at then-#2-ranked Oregon Oct. 2nd (31-24). It then lost to USC a week later, at home, 28-26. The Wildcats had a bye the next week and beat Washington State in Pullman last week, 59-37. Its non-conference schedule included UNLV, UTSA and Nevada.

• Arizona start to the season is one of the best in its history, only being the eighth time its started off 6-1.

UCLA is 6-2, 3-2 in the Pac-12 South and ranked #25.

• UCLA leads the all-time series, 21-15-2, dating back to 1927. UCLA has won two straight, 31-26 last year in Tucson, and then the 66-10 shellacking at the Rose Bowl in 2012. Before those two recent wins, UCLA lost five straight to Arizona.

• UCLA is 12-3-2 against Arizona in Los Angeles.

• The last time a ranked UCLA team played a ranked Arizona team was in 1998, with #3-ranked UCLA beating #10-ranked Arizona in Tucson, 52-28.

• It’s only the third time in the series that both teams have been ranked when they faced each other, the other two being UCLA wins (1998, 1993).

•Only four times in the series has UCLA played a higher-ranked Arizona team. The last time was in 2000, when unranked UCLA knocked off #24-ranked Arizona in Tucson, 27-24. Overall, in those games, the record stands at 2-2.

•A ranked UCLA team has never lost to Arizona in Los Angeles (8-0).

• If UCLA were to win, it would be its first home win against a top-15 opponent since 2007 (16-0 v. #9 Oregon).

• UCLA is 6-6 against ranked teams under Jim Mora.

• Arizona is coached by Rich Rodriguez, who is in his third year in Tucson. Rodriguez (51) is 22-11 with Arizona, going 8-5 and 4-5 in conference in both of his first two seasons. He, of course, was at Michigan for a disastrous three seasons before that (also sitting out a season in between), where he went 15-22 and never finished higher than 7th in the Big Ten. Previously he had established himself as one of the best offensive minds in college football when he made West Virginia a national power in 7 seasons (2001-2007). At Michigan, however, Rodriguez’s spread option never really won over the Wolverines, and his sometimes prickly personality didn’t either, never being considered a “Michigan man.” Many players left the program and criticized Rodriguez, and some anonymously claimed Rodriguez’s staff had violated NCAA rules. The NCAA investigated and found Michigan had committed violations, and it was actually the first time in Michigan’s history it had been found to commit major violations. Regardless of the Michigan experience, Rodriquez has re-vitalized an Arizona program, and he’s considered an innovator in the no-huddle, run-oriented version of the spread, while many give Rodriguez credit for inventing the read option.

• A few UCLA players are set to make history. Brett Hundley is one touchdown pass away from tying the all-time school record of 68, set by Cade McNown (1995-98). Linebacker Eric Kendricks is seven tackles away from a third-straight 100-tackle season; only two other Bruins have ever accomplished that, and they are two of the biggest names in UCLA football history: Don Rogers (1981-83) and Jerry Robinson (1976-78). Running back Paul Perkins is just four yards shy of 1,000 for the season, and he’d be the 13th Bruin to accomplish that.

• It’s a critical game in the Pac-12 South standings. It’s almost certain that, for UCLA, it’s win or die – that it can’t lose a third game in conference and contend for the Pac-12 South title. For Arizona, the game is one of two remaining Pac-12 road games (also playing at Utah Nov. 22nd), while it has three more conference games at home (Colorado, Washington and ASU).

• Brett Hundley’s father, Brett Hundley, Sr., lettered at Arizona in 1986 as a running back.

• UCLA’s offense is 30 for 30 in the redzone this season (21 touchdowns), which ties it for the best redzone conversion percentage in the country.

•Under Mora, UCLA is 20-3 when scoring first, 10-0 when doing so at home, and 22-0 when ahead at halftime.

• Under Rodriguez, Arizona is 4-7 against ranked opponents, and is 1-5 in away games.

• Saturday could see a great deal of flags flying – of the yellow variety. This season, Arizona ranks #92 in most penalties per game (7), and #97 for yardage (64.3). UCLA is 107th in the country for penalties (7.9 per game) and 116th for yardage (74.4).

• The betting line has moved; it opened with UCLA being favored by 3.5 and is currently 6.5 points.

• It’s homecoming for UCLA.

• UCLA will unveil its much-hyped L.A. Steel uniforms, which are a gunmental gray. The last time UCLA unveiled a new, black uniform was two years ago, at home, against Arizona, which resulted in the 66-10 blowout.

• The weather forecast calls for a high of 69 degrees during the day, so the game-time weather should be in the 50s. There was originally some thought there could be day-time sprinkles, but the forecast is now for just partly cloudy skies.

Arizona’s Offense vs. UCLA’s Defense

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.

Nick Wilson
He’s been helped by a group of very talented running backs. Arizona is averaging about 4.8 yards per rush this year, thanks in large part to the duo of freshman running back Nick Wilson (5'10, 199) and redshirt senior running back Terrence Jones-Grigsby (5'7, 195). Wilson started off the year very hot, but cooled off a bit in recent weeks after suffering an ankle injury. He made his way back to the field last week, but looked a bit hampered, carrying the ball 10 times for just 20 yards. Jones-Grigsby, who suffered a concussion two weeks ago, looked very good against the Cougars, rushing for 107 yards on 13 carries. He has very good speed and quickness, and is solidly-built enough to take a hit, even at his stature. Wilson has more size, and has the ability to carry the ball between the tackles very effectively, at full health. The question is whether he will be at full health this weekend. Redshirt junior Jared Baker (5'8, 192) is the third back, and he’ll get a few carries in relief, but it’s mostly a two-man show. Baker, for his part, came into the game two weeks ago after Wilson and Jones-Grigsby were both out, and did an admirable job.

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
The linebackers played generally pretty well against Colorado last week. Eric Kendricks had an excellent game, which is just the most recent in a series of great performances from him as he appears to be fully healthy for the first time in years. Myles Jack is also surging a bit over the last four games after struggling some through the first four games. He seems to be playing his assignments more, with only a bare handful of instances where he looked like he was overpursuing last week. If he can continue to play with more discipline, he could make a big impact over the last few games of the year.

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.

ADVANTAGE: Arizona

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.

Arizona’s Defense vs. UCLA’s Offense

The Wildcats have one of the most interesting defenses, schematically, that UCLA will face this year. It’s a true 3-3-5 as run by Jeff Casteel, with plenty of different options in the base scheme for dealing with different kinds of offensive attacks. Arizona can pressure from multiple spots in the scheme, as one of the beauties of running the 3-3-5 is that very often it’s difficult to tell where the fourth or fifth rusher will come from.

That said, Arizona has not been very successful on the defensive end this year, largely because they’ve had to bring too many extra guys to generate a suitable amount of pressure. The Wildcats lost a huge portion of their defensive front from last year, with three of their top four defensive linemen graduating. Arizona also lost two of their three starting linebackers, so it’s in many ways an entirely new defensive front. Still, they’ve had at least some success this year, most particularly against Oregon ,when Arizona was able to generate a good amount of pressure on Marcus Mariota with just four pass-rushers. That did come with the caveat, though, that Oregon was playing without any of its top three offensive tackles.

So, it’s not a great defense, but it’s probably not as bad as either Colorado’s defense or California’s. The Wildcats are giving up an average of 5.6 yards per play, which is firmly in mediocre territory (just a bit below Arizona State), but just 3.9 yards per rush attempt (against FBS opponents), which isn’t horrible. Of course, they’ve been helped by going against Cal and Washington State already, both of which are pretty awful rushing teams.

Arizona’s defensive line hasn’t been an especially productive unit this year, generally acting more as space-eaters than playmakers. The group is led by the senior duo of defensive tackle Dan Pettinato and defense end Reggie Gilbert. Gilbert is a good enough athlete, and can cause some trouble in the backfield, but neither he nor Pettinato is a really significant pass-rusher. The nose tackle duties are split between junior Parker Zellers and redshirt freshman Jeff Worthy, neither of which is much more than a space-eater at this stage.

Scooby Wright
The real star of the defense is middle linebacker Scooby Wright, who’ll actually line up in a variety of spots – sometimes on the edge, sometimes in the middle, sometimes almost at the line of scrimmage. He leads the team in tackles (at 78), tackles for loss (at 14), and sacks (at 9). He’s been a disruptive force all year, and has an incredible motor that makes him a tough matchup for virtually any blocker. The linebacker corps is a solid group with good size. Cody Ippolito and Derrick Turituri more or less split time at the strongside backer position, and each will often be asked to provide support at the line of scrimmage against the run. The weakside linebacker has mostly been Jake Matthews, but DeAndre Miller has worked in more of late.

The 3-3-5 really makes or breaks based on the Bandit and Spur positions, which are, in this system, linebacker/safety hybrids. Jared Tevis is the star of this group at the Bandit position. He plays equal amounts of time in the box and in coverage, and has been effective wherever he lines up. William Parks, the Spur, has been good as well, but he plays more in coverage than Tevis, who ends up acting often as a box safety. Tra’Mayne Bondurant, who started last year at Spur, will also see time at both spots.

The remainder of the secondary has been just average at best this year, with the Wildcats often getting exploited through the air. Redshirt senior Johnathan McKnight is probably the best of the bunch, with six pass break-ups this year, leading the team. Redshirt freshman Jarvis McCall has been exploited a bit more on the other side, with teams taking advantage of his inexperience as he’s blown quite a few coverages this year. Jourdan Grandon, who started last year as the lone true safety in the defense, has returned this year, and has been just OK, occasionally taking poor angles at ball carriers. He has good ball skills, though, and is always a danger to get a pick. He’ll be spelled at times by backup Jamar Allah.

UCLA’s offense had some struggles last week against Colorado, though the final stat line may not indicate it. The offense completely stagnated in the second half, and many of the issues had to do with penalties and quarterback Brett Hundley struggling to hit open receivers. Hundley was inaccurate on several deeper passes throughout the game, which was a bit out of the ordinary for him, as he came into last week’s game leading the country in completion percentage. He also seemed to struggle with reading the field, and got a bit rattled in the face of a Colorado pass rush that actually didn’t seem to be all that effective. In any sense, it wasn’t a great game for him, and he’ll be looking to bounce back this week.

UCLA’s running game has been nothing short of excellent in the last few weeks, and much of the credit has to go to an improved offensive line and Paul Perkins’ emergence as a top-level Pac-12 running back. Perkins ran for 180 yards last week on just 19 carries, and had one explosive touchdown run for 92 yards. The offensive line, with Conor McDermott stepping in for Malcolm Bunche at left tackle, has been excellent over the last two games, providing great pass protection while opening up big holes in the running game. With Perkins running the way he is, and the offensive line blocking the way it is, it looks like UCLA should be able to generate a consistent running game through the final four games of the regular season.

Mossi Johnson
The receiving corps has been generally pretty good, but the Bruins have suffered a key injury, with Thomas Duarte going down with a hamstring injury two weeks ago against California. He sat out the Colorado game and Mossi Johnson, his true freshman backup, did a very good job in his place, catching a few passes and also making several key blocks. Still, without Duarte, Hundley was without one of his big safety nets, which may have played a role in limiting his effectiveness. Right now, it doesn’t look as if Duarte is going to play, which will mean Hundley will have to increasingly rely on the other receivers in the group.

ADVANTAGE: UCLA

Hundley played a generally poor game last week, but there were possibly some mitigating circumstances. First, UCLA was playing at altitude, which may have helped lead to some of those early incompletions on balls that sailed over the heads of receivers. Second, the Bruins had some untimely penalties and drops on key downs that kept the offense and Hundley out of rhythm. And third, it was his first game this season without Duarte from the beginning, which may have kept him from looking over the middle.

We think he’ll bounce back, at least to a certain extent, because the Arizona offense isn’t very good, and with UCLA’s improved offensive line, shouldn’t be able to generate significant pressure with just a four-man rush. If Arizona has to bring blitzers to put pressure on Hundley, which we’d guess they’ll have to do, it should open up plenty of opportunities for UCLA receivers on short-to-intermediate routes, which are Hundley’s bread and butter.

In the running game, Arizona hasn’t really faced a running game as good as UCLA’s – yes, they faced Oregon, but Oregon was nowhere near 100% during that game, missing several offensive linemen. UCLA’s offensive line has arguably never been healthier or more productive than it is now in the Mora era, and Perkins is rapidly making a case to be considered the best or second-best running back for UCLA in the last four or five years. Even though the Wildcats’ rushing defense has been statistically solid, we think UCLA will be able to run on them, which also should open some opportunities for Hundley to hit passes to his receivers in single coverage as Arizona stacks the box to stop the run.

The big issue for UCLA would start if Arizona, like Oregon, is able to generate a pass rush with just its front four. If so, Arizona can drop enough guys into coverage to make it a tough day for Hundley. So, UCLA’s offensive line will have to play well, and Hundley will need to not have the same kind of day he had against Colorado, where he feels a rush oftentimes that isn’t there. We anticipate he’ll be better, and the offensive line will do a good job against Arizona’s defensive front, giving UCLA the edge in this battle.

Special Teams

Arizona’s field goal kicker Casey Skowron is a pretty average college kicker. He’d been a little scattershot from 34+ yards, missing attempts from 34, 38, 36 and, weirdly, 27 yards this year, but making a good portion from those distances as well. He has some range, with a 49-yard make earlier in the year. Ka’imi Fairbairn has been better of late after missing a key attempt against Utah, but UCLA is managing his attempts, generally only using him on really makeable attempts (35 and in). So Arizona probably has a slight edge in this aspect.

At punter, Drew Riggleman is a legitimate weapon for Arizona, with a 47-yard average and eight of his 26 punts downed inside the 20. He has, though, achieved only three fair catches all year, so it’s very possible to get a return off of him. UCLA’s punting situation, with both Adam Searl and Matt Mengel getting attempts, has improved drastically in recent weeks, with each looking like effective punters. They’ve been very good at limiting returns this year, kicking balls with good hang time and not too far, which might actually be a better strategy when punting. We’ll call this a wash.

In the return game, DaVonte’ Neal has been explosive as a punt returner in recent weeks, averaging an astonishing 21 yards per punt return and recording a touchdown. He’s very fast and shifty, and arguably as dangerous as Utah’s Kaelin Clay. Kick returner Tyrell Johnson has been nothing special, averaging 21 yards per return. On the UCLA end, Ishmael Adams has been very good all year, but has gone a bit quiet in recent games. Still, Adams is a threat to break a big one every time he touches the ball as both punt and kick returner. Because we anticipate Adams getting more chances to return the ball than Neal will, we’ll give the edge in this aspect of the special teams competition to UCLA.

ADVANTAGE: Even

Prediction

Anu Solomon
This is an absolutely critical game for both teams. UCLA, if it wants to stay alive in the South, has to win, since even as it stands right now, the Bruins need Utah to lose two more games and ASU to lose once more. Arizona, though still in control of its own destiny, would put itself in really dire position if it lost this game, and would likely need to win out while also having Utah, UCLA, and USC lose at least one more game apiece. Essentially, we’ve reached the point of the season where every game is critical to every team.

The Bruins clearly should have the ability to score on Arizona’s defense. It’s not a great defense, and it seemingly plays to the strengths of UCLA’s offense, especially now that UCLA’s offense has a strong offensive line and running game. But, likewise, Arizona should be able to score on UCLA’s defense, especially if the Bruins have not adjusted how they defend the edge against read-option teams like Arizona. UCLA has struggled all year with edge containment, and even if UCLA makes some changes that yield positive results, we’d still have to imagine that Arizona will be able to score a good amount.

This game is going to come down to a couple of things: one, can Brett Hundley shake off the last couple of weeks and put together a very good performance, and two, can UCLA be effective enough in edge containment to generate at least a few stops per half. If UCLA is able to accomplish both, we could see this sliding into blowout territory, but we’d just completely uncertain whether they’ll be able to accomplish either.

It’s a difficult game to predict, as most of UCLA’s games have been this year. With all the hubbub surrounding it (it being homecoming, UCLA wearing the cool new uniforms, and UCLA absolutely needing to right the ship at home) we’re going to opt for a Bruins’ win, but we think it’s going to be a nail-biter.

UCLA 41
Arizona 38

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