Game Week: UCLA's Offense vs. Arizona's Defense

Sep. 28 -- This isn't exactly going to be strength-on-strength, when UCLA's offense matches up against Arizona's defense...

UCLA's Offense vs. Arizona's Defense

Remember last year, when Scooby Wright went down with a knee injury pretty early on in the season and Arizona's defense was a grim disaster the rest of the season? Well, if you remember what that mess looked like, you'll have a pretty good picture of this year's Wildcat defense.

Arizona is the second-worst defense UCLA will have faced this year, and unless something drastic changes, the Wildcats will be the third- or fourth-worst defense the Bruins face all season (some combination of California, Arizona, Arizona State, and UNLV will man the rearguard in that department). The Wildcats still don't have a real solution to the loss of Wright, and that inability to produce a quality defense is going to put a hard limit on what this Arizona team can do this season.

This is a bad rushing defense. The Wildcats are giving up 5.4 yards per carry, which is somehow only second-worst in the league behind California's in absentia defense. The pass defense is better statistically, but they haven't really passed the eye test too well -- when teams have needed to pass, they've gotten what they needed from this defense. It's just that teams often can run so well on Arizona, there's little need to challenge the defense deep. Case in point: Washington last week ran for an astounding 352 yards on the Wildcats against just 160 yards passing.

Arizona replaced departed defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel with new defensive coordinator Marcel Yates in the offseason, but really all they did was change the alignment slightly for their base nickel defense. Instead of a 3-3-5, Arizona's base is now a 4-2-5, but there hasn't been any noticeable uptick in production.

It all starts -- and ends -- up front for Arizona. The Wildcats are wildly, crazily undersized across the defensive front. Arizona's starting nose tackle, redshirt junior Parker Zellers, is 6'1 and 247 pounds. 247 pounds. We're going to do a paragraph break right here for that to sink in.

Beyond Zellers, his fellow defensive tackle, senior Sani Fuimaono (6'1, 271), is also undersized for his position. The two ends in the base defense are relatively undersized as well, with redshirt freshman Justin Belknap (6'2, 247) manning one spot and redshirt junior DeAndre Miller (6'3, 236) manning the other. It's weird to look at, because Arizona has bigger guys in the depth chart. Behind Zellers, there's redshirt senior Aiulua Fanene (6'5, 308) and behind Fuimaono there's redshirt junior Luca Bruno (6'4, 295). It's as if Arizona has prioritized a pass rush at the expense of literally any other concern along the defensive front.

So has the tradeoff paid off in sacks and tackles for loss? Sort of, but not really. The defensive line has combined for 5 of Arizona's 11 sacks and a full 8.5 tackles for loss out of a total of 24. With the kind of quickness advantage you would think Arizona would have across the board on the defensive line, though, you'd expect more disruption, especially out of the ends. As it stands, the defensive line looks like it's just getting physically dominated most games.

LB Cody Ippolito (USA Today)

The linebacker corps is probably the strength of the defense, such as there is a strength of the defense. Starting middle linebacker and redshirt senior Cody Ippolito (6'2, 248) started six games last year and has looked solid, if unspectacular through the first portion of the season. Redshirt senior Will linebackers Paul Magloire (6'1, 227) and Michael Barton (6'0, 237) are the No. 1 and No. 3 leading tacklers on the team, respectively, and both are solid cover linebackers, in addition to being fairly disruptive when used as blitzers. Miller, who's effectively playing a hybrid position between end and linebacker, will drop into coverage from time to time as well.

The secondary is fairly experienced, and statistics would indicate that they're fairly good. Reshirt senior Davonte' Neal (5'10, 178) is probably the star of the group. He has three pass breakups this year, and he's been pretty solid in coverage this year from what we've seen. He's bookended by redshirt junior Dane Cruikshank (6'1, 204), who's a more physical corner that Arizona will put into press coverage a little more often than Neal. Cruikshank is a JC transfer in his first year with the Wildcats. Arizona also does that thing where they name their nickels and safeties all sorts of weird names, but they'll play a combination of redshirt junior Jarvis McCall (6'2, 203) at safety, and then sophomore Demetrius Flannigan (6'2, 199), redshirt senior Tellas Jones, and freshman Tristan Cooper at a couple of roving nickel safety positions known as "bandit" and "spur". Flannigan is definitely one to keep an eye on, as he already has two interceptions this year and is the second-leading tackler on the team. 

All told, Arizona is pretty undersized across the board, but especially along the defensive line. If there's a matchup that every offensive line in the league should dominate this year, it's up front against this defensive line.

UCLA's offense is, it's fair to say at this point, not good. It's not actively bad, at least not yet, but we've seen enough to know now that whatever is ailing UCLA's offense isn't just jitters, but some systemic issues. First, the offensive line is a problem, especially on the interior. Much of the new scheme was designed around the idea that UCLA would be able to run between the tackles and so far, that just hasn't been the case. UCLA is averaging its lowest average yards per carry since Rick Neuheisel's first year, and that's pretty close to disastrous, especially given the talent that UCLA has at running back.

The second issue has been receiver play. There have been an inordinate number of drops through the first four games, more than we can really remember in any one stretch of watching UCLA games. We expected it would be an issue for UCLA to replace the production of Jordan Payton and Thomas Duarte, but we really didn't expect it to look this ugly through four games. UCLA has talent at receiver, but it has really not shown itself to any great extent so far.

Josh Rosen (Photo by Steve Cheng)

And that isn't entirely on the receivers -- Josh Rosen's performance thus far is the third issue. He's looked just OK this season, and, depending on your perspective, that might be a little generous. He was not good against Texas A&M and not very good against BYU. We thought he looked better last week, but he's still having a range of issues, from locking onto receivers to not throwing quickly enough to hit receivers as they make their breaks to overthrowing or under throwing basically any ball that has to travel more than 25 yards in the air. He has the look of a guy who's still figuring out how to get comfortable in this offense, and it looks like it's going to take more time than we anticipated.

So UCLA has some things to figure out. If the Bruins can't generate a consistent interior rushing attack (and, while we're confident UCLA will have an uptick this week against a bad Arizona run defense, we're not anticipating the run offense getting considerably better this year), then there's going to be an even greater onus on Rosen to make something happen through the air than there already is. But the first thing is that UCLA is going to have to show some flexibility. Last week against Stanford, the Bruin staff somewhat stubbornly tried to run between the tackles even when it was obvious it wasn't working. We're not certain it can work -- at least, not with the present state of the interior offensive line. If UCLA is going to produce a credible offensive attack over the balance of the season, it might have to start with the pass.


But not this week! This week, UCLA should be able to run up the middle, around the middle, through the middle, and beyond the middle. If UCLA is unable to do so, that will be the surest sign of all time that the Bruins need to scrap their current offensive game plan and start getting weird.

We would guess that Arizona will look to take chances and gear up to stop the run. If the Wildcats commit seven or eight to the box, they might be able to hold up against the Bruins on the ground, at least partially, but that'll leave some good opportunities for Rosen in the passing game. After the beating Arizona took on the ground last week, we have to imagine they'll be looking to do whatever they can to stop the run, so vulnerabilities in the passing game should present themselves.

This is as close to an easy matchup for UCLA's offense as the Bruins will get until they face Cal at the end of the year, and given the lack of size up front for the Wildcats, this might be the best matchup possible for UCLA's offense.


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