Arizona’s Offense vs. UCLA’s Defense
It’s tough to gauge Arizona’s offense at this early stage of the season because the Wildcats have basically played no one. The most credible opponent they’ve faced was Nevada, but the Wolfpack isn’t projected to be very good this year. So, while Arizona has put up some pretty incredible offensive numbers in those three games, it’s difficult to know how truly good the offense is.
We can guess, though. Rich Rodriguez is in his fourth year at the helm in Tucson, and this is the first year where he has a returning starter at quarterback. Rodriguez, aside from a weird few years in Michigan, has been universally acknowledged as a great offensive mind, and throughout all of his years at West Virginia and now at Arizona, he has been able to churn out excellent offenses year-in and year-out.
This season, not counting the game against Northern Arizona because it’s an FCS school, the Wildcats are averaging 6.2 yards per play, which is a very good number and right there with UCLA hovering around the top 25 in the country. Much of that is built on the rushing offense, which is averaging 5.7 yards per carry, which is the 15th best number in the country and, somewhat astoundingly, still 4th in the Pac-12 behind USC, UCLA, and California. We feel comfortable saying, given Rodriguez’s track record and what we’ve been able to glean from watching Arizona through three games, that the Wildcats have a good offense, and will probably get better as the year progresses.
As we said above, Arizona returns a starter at quarterback for the first time in Rodriguez’s time in Tucson — redshirt sophomore Anu Solomon (6’2, 205). Again, take the competition with a grain of salt, but Solomon has started off the year on fire, completing nearly 70% of his passes with 10 touchdowns and no interceptions. It’s a great start for the young quarterback, especially when you take into account how he struggled down the stretch last year, throwing just three touchdowns in his last five games against four interceptions, while completing just 53% of his passes.
The one fundamental knock on him as a Rodriguez quarterback is that he’s not a great runner. So much of Rodriguez’s offense is predicated on the zone-read, and while Solomon can fake it well and does a pretty good job of making the correct decision in the zone-read, he just isn’t a huge threat to run for big chunks of yardage. He’s not slow, but he’s not an explosive runner, and that limits the offense a little bit. He has a good arm, though, and has looked more accurate this season than he did last year, which is a positive sign.
For those thinking UCLA is the only unlucky team in the country, take a look at the injuries Arizona has suffered at wide receiver. The Wildcats, expected to have one of the better wide receiver corps in the conference, have really been hit by the injury bug this season. Redshirt junior Trey Griffey (6’3, 195), who suffered a foot sprain just prior to the start of the season, was expected to start this season and has yet to see the field. He may be ready for Saturday’s game, and is listed as a second-string receiver. Redshirt junior Cayleb Jones (6’3, 215) is still listed as a starter at receiver, but he left the Northern Arizona game last week with an undisclosed injury. Junior slot receiver Samajie Grant (5’9, 177) is also still listed as a starter, but he, too, left Saturday’s game with an undisclosed injury. His intended backup in the slot, sophomore Tyrell Johnson (5’7, 160), has yet to see the field this year after a preseason injury, and he might be the fastest player on the team. It’s to the point now where Arizona had to use redshirt senior backup quarterback Jerrard Randall (6’1, 185) at receiver last week against Northern Arizona. Admittedly, Randall looked good, and plenty explosive, but that’s not a good situation to be in. We know for sure that redshirt senior David Richards (6’4, 213) is healthy, and he has quietly emerged as one of the best receivers on the team, with a great combination of size, speed, and hands.
If the whole group is healthy, Arizona’s receivers have the size and speed to really challenge UCLA’s depleted secondary, but the question is whether they’ll be healthy for the game. The tandem of Jones and Richards on the outsides could prove to be an exploitable matchup for the Wildcats in this game.
Much of Arizona’s offense, though, is predicated on its excellent run game. Sophomore Nick Wilson (5’10, 199) emerged last season as one of the top running backs in the Pac-12 and he has picked up right where he left off this season. He’s averaging 7 yards per carry and has averaged almost 150 yards per game through three games. He has a great combination of balance, speed, and power. He’s doubtless Arizona’s most important offensive weapon. Redshirt senior Jared Baker (5’8, 192) is his primary backup. Baker has very good speed, but hasn’t made much of an impact on the field through his four years in the program. Freshman Orlando Bradford (5’8, 202) got some spot carries against Nevada, but the running game is mostly a two-man show with Wilson and Baker.
The offensive line dealt with some considerable adversity in the offseason. First, Arizona lost three starters from last season, including both starting tackles and its starting center. Then, just before the start of the season, expected starting center Carter Wood went down with a season-ending injury, which caused some shuffling. Suddenly, expected starter at left guard, senior Cayman Bundage (6’2, 281), had to make the transition to center, which caused some dominos to fall. In his place at left guard is redshirt junior Zach Hemmila (6’3, 293), who has mostly been a special teams player in his career so far. At left tackle, redshirt junior Freddie Tagaloa (6’8, 316) is probably the best player on the offensive line. He transferred from Cal after the 2013 season and had to sit out the 2014 season. He actually got a little nicked up in the opener, but returned for the last two games and has looked good for the Wildcats. At the opposite tackle spot, redshirt senior Lene Maiava (6’5, 301) will get the nod. Maiava has made his reputation as something of a super-sub the last few years, filling in at both tackle and guard. Despite having limited starts, he’s an experienced player. At right guard, redshirt sophomore Jacob Alsadek (6’7, 298) returns as the starter. Alsadek made some Freshman All-American lists last year. He’s a big, strong guy who makes up for his lack of elite athleticism and flexibility with sheer strength.
So far this year, the offensive line, particularly the right side, has been very good at run-blocking, but pass-blocking has been a little spottier. Generally, Arizona’s offense uses quick drops, so the lack of great pass-blocking hasn’t been a huge concern, but it’ll be something to monitor as Arizona starts to play opponents with better defenses. For what it’s worth, Solomon has only taken four sacks this year after taking 38 last season.
The hits just keep on coming for UCLA’s defense. After losing starting defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes to an ACL tear earlier this season, UCLA suffered a double-blow this week, losing starting cornerback Fabian Moreau to a Lisfranc foot fracture and starting linebacker/nickelback/everything Myles Jack to a significant knee injury. Now, UCLA has some quality depth on the defensive side of the ball, but losing those three players is significant.
Jack’s injury is probably the most significant, simply because of the versatility he brings to the table. He has the ability to line up anywhere from outside linebacker to inside linebacker to safety, and seemed to be the team’s primary nickelback against BYU last week. His combination of size and speed gave UCLA a tremendous amount of flexibility on defense, and there isn’t a really obvious replacement on the roster. Jayon Brown probably gives the closest thing to Jack’s coverage ability, but he’s not the physical freak that Jack is.
For the linebacker corps, it will be interesting to see which way they go. Last week, we saw Isaako Savaiinaea emerge as a legitimate player in replacing Kenny Young, who was ejected from the game for targeting. He and Young play the same position, though, so it could be difficult to have them both play at the same time. Cameron Judge could provide some of the coverage aspects that Jack provided, but he’s not quite as stout against the run. We could easily see some schematic changes with Jack out, since there isn’t a player on the team who provides all aspects of what Jack does.
With Moreau out and Jack out, we could see some shuffling in the secondary. We wouldn’t be shocked to see Randall Goforth, who has started at safety in each of the first three games, flip down to cornerback, which would allow one of Tahaan Goodman or Adarius Pickett to start at safety. It’s a very good thing for the Bruins that Ishmael Adams is going to be back this season, because he will potentially solve some of the issues at nickel with Jack out (again, Jack is so freakily versatile that he had become essentially the team’s nickelback).
The defensive line, with the loss of Eddie Vanderdoes, is probably not going to be the run-stopping force it was on track to be at the start of the season, but it’s still a very good unit, with a future pro in Kenneth Clark at nose tackle, a very good defensive end in Takkarist McKinley, and plenty of options at defensive tackle between Eli Ankou (who’s more of a run-stopper) and Matt Dickerson (who’s more of an interior pass-rusher) among others.
With the obvious shake-ups in the secondary, it will be very interesting to see what way UCLA goes. Will the Bruins opt for dropping more guys into coverage to shore up the back line, or will they opt to pressure more to keep quarterbacks from having the time to pick apart the secondary? This game should be a good early test.
If Jack were healthy, we’d give this matchup to the Bruins, but his injury really changes the dynamics of the defense, especially when matched up against spread offenses like Arizona’s. If we knew all of Arizona’s receivers were healthy, we’d probably give this matchup to the Wildcats. Since we don’t know that, we’ll keep it even, since there’s reason to believe that Jim Mora and company just have the number of this offense.
Last year, UCLA harassed Anu Solomon into a dreadful 18 of 48 performance, while also limited Rich Rodriguez’s vaunted rushing attack to just 80 yards on 31 carries. It was a dominant performance, and probably the best job that UCLA has done defensively in the Mora era. And the thing is, the Bruins have significantly limited Arizona each of the three times they’ve played. In 2013, UCLA won 31-26, but it was a 21-10 game at halftime. The previous year, UCLA held the Wildcats to just 10 points en route to a monumental 66-10 blowout.
The big key for UCLA is putting pressure on Solomon with no more than five. He was prone to mistakes and inaccuracy when under pressure last season, and hasn’t really dealt with significant pressure this season. The key for UCLA is being able to do it with no more than five, because Arizona’s quick passing game really requires UCLA keeping a good amount of players back in coverage. Last year, the Bruins sparingly used some corner and safety blitzes, and we wouldn’t be stunned to see one or two of those on Saturday.
Containing Nick Wilson is a big key as well. Last year, UCLA did a great job on the edge to keep Wilson from turning the corner, and we have to figure that with Deon Hollins’ improvement and McKinley’s growing comfort at defensive end, UCLA will have some success doing so again. Arizona doesn’t quite have the talent at tackle that they had last year, which should help with UCLA’s edge containment.
If Solomon is given time to throw, and Cayleb Jones and Samajie Grant are healthy, this could be an ugly game for UCLA’s secondary, so the key for UCLA is going to be taking away Solomon’s time to throw. If the Bruins can effectively pressure him with four or five, UCLA should be in good shape to take this side of the matchup.