Game Week: UCLA vs. Arizona Full Preview

Sep. 29 -- Arizona's offense could present a stiff test for the Bruins on Saturday...

Facts and Factors

• UCLA hosts the Arizona Wildcats Saturday at the Rose Bowl, with kick-off at 7:30 p.m. PST.  The game will be televised by ESPN, with the commentary provided by Beth Mowins and Anthony Becht. 

• UCLA is 2-2, losing to two teams currently in the top 10 of the AP Poll, Stanford (#7) and Texas A&M (#9).  UCLA lost in overtime to Texas A&M and in the last 30 seconds to Stanford.  The Bruins are 0-1 in the Pac-12 South. 

• Arizona is 2-2.  It lost to BYU in the season opener (18-16) at home, beat Grambling State (31-21) and Hawaii (47-28) and then lost to #10-ranked Washington at home in overtime (35-28).  The Wildcats are also 0-1 in the Pac-12 South. 

• UCLA leads the all-time series with Arizona, 23-15-2.  The Bruins are 10-4-1 against the Wildcats in the Rose Bowl. 

• It's the first true road game for Arizona this season, after the Wildcats opened at a neutral site and then played three games at home. 

• The Bruins have won the last four against the Wildcats, but Arizona won the five previous games before UCLA's current streak. 

• UCLA coach Jim Mora has never lost to Arizona, outscoring them 170-73 in four games, averaging a 32-point margin of victory.  

• Last year in Tucson, the Bruins pretty much rolled over the Wildcats, 56-30.  It was the first career Pac-12 road game for UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen, and he was good, throwing for 284 yards as UCLA turned three turnovers into touchdowns to take a 28-point halftime lead. 

•  In four games this season UCLA has only allowed one touchdown in the first quarter and 10 points overall. Opponents have combined to score only 27 points in four games in the first half against the Bruins.

• The Bruins have held their last three opponents to 350 yards or less. The last time UCLA   posted a streak of three straight was in 2009.

• Opposing offenses have completed just 49.7% of its passes against UCLA so far this season, which is #1 in the Pac-12. 

• In the Pac-12, UCLA's offense is ranked 9th and defense 5th.  Arizona's offense is 6th and its defense 10th. 

•  UCLA's middle linebacker Kenny Young will be the last player at UCLA to ever wear the No. 42, which is being retired from all sports in tribute to Bruin legend Jackie Robinson. 

 Arizona is coached by Rich Rodriguez, who is in his fifth year in Tucson. Rodriguez (53) is 35-22 with Arizona, going 8-5 in his first two seasons before winning the Pac-12 South in 2014 by going 10-4, achieving only the second 10-win season in Arizona history. Last season, his Arizona team fell to 7-6. 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.” Rodriquez is considered an innovator in the no-huddle, run-oriented version of the spread, with many giving Rodriguez credit for inventing the read option. 

• Besides UCLA, the only other program Rodriguez hasn't beaten in the Pac-12 is Stanford. 

• Last week, Arizona played the undefeated Washington Huskies tough, losing in overtime, and it was especially noteworthy as the break-out game for Arizona quarterback Brandon Dawkins, who passed for 167 yards and a touchdown, and ran for 176 yards and two touchdowns.  His 79-yard touchdown run is the longest by a quarterback in college football this season. 

• The betting line opened with UCLA -12 and has hovered close to there, anywhere from -12.5 to -13. 

• The weather forecast calls for a high of 80 degrees in Pasadena on Saturday, with a game-time temperature about 70 degrees. 

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.

ADVANTAGE: UCLA

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.

Arizona's Offense vs. UCLA's Defense

While Arizona's defense may be one of the poorest in the Pac-12, Arizona's offense is clearly in the top third, or so, of the conference. The Wildcats actually put up some points and yards on Washington last week, which is a feat that few teams can claim. Stunningly, Arizona put up 308 yards on the ground against the Huskies and averaged 7.2 yards per carry -- even more than the Huskies averaged against Arizona's defense.

The interesting part is that Arizona's offense has really come together without its starting quarterback in the last few weeks. Redshirt junior quarterback Anu Solomon (6'2, 206) has only played in one game this year, and it was the lackluster home opener against BYU that saw the Wildcats put up a measly 16 points and lose to the Cougars. Solomon, for all of his strengths as a passer, has never really provided Rich Rodriguez with the dual threat he covets to run his offense, and it has always seemed like there's been some dissatisfaction from the coaching staff with his performance. He's been sitting for a few weeks now with a knee injury and, even if he's healthy, we can't imagine that Arizona is going to turn to him unless something catastrophic happens.

QB Brandon Dawkins (USA Today)

And the reason they can feel comfortable doing that is entirely due to the play of redshirt sophomore quarterback Brandon Dawkins (6'3, 210). Dawkins has been exceptional since taking over the starting job. After a brief hiccup to start the game against Grambling State, where it looked like it took a while to get comfortable, he has been very tough to defend. He's not an incredibly polished passer, but he has been effective enough, completing 61% of his passes with three touchdowns and an interception. He is an incredible runner, though -- through three games as a starter, he's averaging 130 rushing yards and a full 8.88 yards per carry (and that's including sacks). He is an absolutely explosive runner, and he does enough in the short passing game that it can be hard to just purely key on him as a runner.

We can't emphasize enough how impressive that rushing effort was against Washington. Even though the Huskies haven't played a very tough schedule, their defense definitely passes the eye test, and it was a top-20 rushing defense heading into that game, giving up an average of 2.8 yards per carry. After the game, Washington's run defense is now ranked somewhere in the 60s, just ahead of UCLA, and is giving up 4.2 yards per carry.

The issue for Arizona is that the other significant contributor to the rushing attack over the last two games -- freshman tailback J.J. Taylor -- is likely out for the season after breaking his ankle against Washington. He had rushed for a combined 265 yards as the fill-in for injured junior starter Nick Wilson (5'10, 208), who has also been out with an ankle injury. We haven't found a major update on Wilson for this game, and Rodriguez typically plays injuries pretty close to the vest. If he's ready to go, that will solve a lot of problems for Arizona, but if not, some combination of redshirt junior power back Zach Green (5'10, 227) and junior scat back Tyrell Johnson (5'7, 164) will have to play considerably.

Arizona's offense typically will go with either a tight end and three wide receivers as its base look, or a pure four-wide spread. The Wildcats have some experienced talent at those positions, with four seniors in the mix to start. The lone sophomore, though, has been the most productive, with slot receiver Shun Brown (5'8, 175) recording 13 catches and 213 yards through four games. Dawkins seems to have a really nice connection with him, and in the simplified passing attack they've gone to since Dawkins replaced Solomon, the slot seems to be more of the focus. Fellow slot receiver, senior Nate Phillips (5'7, 186) has likewise been a favored target of Dawkins, though he hasn't been quite as explosive as Brown. Despite catching just one fewer pass than Brown, he has over 100 fewer yards. The outside receivers are redshirt senior Trey Griffey (6'3, 209) and senior Samajie Grant (5'9, 180). They've both been productive, but haven't been targeted nearly as often as the slots by Dawkins. Griffey is a bit of a matchup problem with his size, and he's definitely one to watch when Arizona needs to convert first downs. At tight end, redshirt senior Josh Kern (6'5, 235) and redshirt sophomore Trevor Wood (6'6, 265) have combined for just six catches through the first four games, so they're probably not a significant enough threat to spend too much time worrying about. Grant, for his part, could also factor into the tailback position if Wilson is unable to go, since he has some experience playing running back from high school.

Arizona's offensive line is good enough for what the Wildcats like to do. The Wildcats have starting experience at every position except for center, where redshirt freshman Nathan Eldridge (6'3, 290) will get the nod. Tragically, the presumed starting center for Arizona before the season, Zach Hemmila, died on August 7 due to what was described as a toxic mix of medications. At left tackle, the Wildcats return junior Layth Friekh (6'5, 282) who missed the UCLA game last season. The guard positions are manned by the well-traveled redshirt senior Freddie Tagaloa (6'8, 314) on the left side and redshirt junior Jacob Alsadek (6'7, 315) on the right side. At right tackle, redshirt junior Gerhard De Beer (6'7, 314) returns after starting a handful of games last year. As a pass blocking unit, they leave a little bit to be desired, but they've been fine in the running game so far. 

UCLA's defense has put together back-to-back impressive showings against BYU and Stanford, and it's been enough to somewhat allay our early season concerns. A big part of the resurgence has been the relative health of Eddie Vanderdoes and Takkarist McKinley. With McKinley for much of the Texas A&M game and the entire UNLV game, UCLA generated basically no pass rush and also really suffered in the running game. Vanderdoes also missed much of the UNLV game. With them against BYU and Stanford, though, the defense was considerably better, getting much more pressure on the quarterback and holding up better against the run. Eli Ankou, who suffered an elbow injury against Stanford, could be out for this game.

DB Nate Meadors (Photo by Steve Cheng)

The secondary has been excellent this season, with very good cornerback play for the most part from Fabian Moreau and Nathan Meadors. They've been a little bit weaker at safety, but only relatively so. Adarius Pickett has looked particularly good with the second unit at safety, and he could be pushing for a starting job here fairly soon. The strength in the secondary has allowed UCLA to commit a little bit more to the box in recent weeks, which has certainly helped defend against the run. 

With the better play out of the defensive line, the linebackers have also looked better the last two weeks, which stands to reason. Kenny Young, after having a rough start to the season, has looked much better against both BYU and Stanford, while Jayon Brown has also come alive as well. If the defensive line can continue to play this well, it will go a long way toward making this the top-25 defense we anticipated it would be heading into the season. 

ADVANTAGE: EVEN

UCLA's defense has been good the last two weeks, but we haven't seen it perform against this specific type of rushing attack. BYU, strangely, didn't run an offense to take advantage of Taysom Hill's running ability, so we didn't really get a look at how effective this defense will be going against a true dual-threat. Dawkins is certainly that, and his crazy rushing performance against Washington is a real eye-opener. If UCLA can hold him to under 100 yards on the ground, that would be a major victory, but we're just not sure it is going to happen. McKinley has still been hobbled, off and on, through the last two games, and UCLA needs him on the edge against this type of quarterback.

We imagine UCLA will do what it's done the last two weeks, and try to spy Dawkins with some combination of players, including Brown and Young. Dawkins is faster than most of those linebackers, but if they play their angles well enough, they should be able to limit him. The big key will be UCLA's defensive line play -- if the Bruins can squeeze the pocket and limit interior running lanes for the quarterback on draws, forcing him to go to the sideline for running room, that'll give UCLA's linebackers a fighting chance to track him down.

If UCLA can limit Dawkins and the interior rushing attack in one fell swoop, that will more or less shut down the Arizona offense. While we like what we've seen out of Dawkins, we don't think he's equipped, at this stage of his development, to lead long drives with just his arm. He needs to be able to run the ball, so stopping that has to be UCLA's first priority.

We see this being a back and forth matchup. Running the quarterback is very clearly what Arizona does best right now, but UCLA has improved as a run defense in the last two weeks as well. It's going to be really interesting to see what comes out of this side of the matchup. If Dawkins is able to run wild, the Bruins could be in for a bit of a shootout.

Special Teams

Arizona has been very good in the kicking game this year. Redshirt sophomore Josh Pollack (5'10, 184) handles both field goals and punts and has been exceptional in both departments. He's missed one field goal, but it was a 52-yarder, and otherwise has made his other four, including a long of 46. His punts have been truly great, as he is averaging 48 yards per punt including 7 of his 15 downed inside the 20. He's one of the elite punters in the country through the early going. On kickoffs, redshirt sophomore Edgar Gastelum (6'2, 252) has 11 touchbacks on 23 kickoffs, which is a very good touchback rate.

The return game hasn't been as kind to the Wildcats. Johnson handles kickoff returns, and he's averaging a pretty poor 15.4 yards per return with a long of 33. Arizona also lost its best punt returner when Taylor went down, leaving Phillips, who hasn't looked particularly explosive yet this year (3.5 yards per return). The strength of Arizona's kicking game has more than made up for Arizona's lack of production in the return game, though.

UCLA is in a similar boat, just slightly worse. J.J. Molson has been solid on field goals this year (6 of 8 with a miss from 38 and a miss from 48), but he'll need to add some leg on his kickoffs next season (he has just five touchbacks on 20 kickoffs). Austin Kent has been a very solid punter this year, averaging 43.4 yards per punt with 6 of his 21 kicks downed inside the 20. 

The return game hasn't been great. Ishmael Adams is averaging 3.1 yards per punt return and just a hair over 20 yards per kick return, which aren't spectacular numbers, and he's come close to coughing up turnovers on two returns this year. He doesn't look like the same explosive and decisive player who took over the job as a sophomore, and it might be time to give someone else a shot there.

ADVANTAGE: ARIZONA

Prediction

From our standpoint, this game is pretty intriguing. Arizona's defense seems tailor-made to jumpstart UCLA's very poor interior rushing attack, and it's sort of the case that if UCLA can't rush inside on this team, it's an open question whether the Bruins can run inside on any team this year. On the other side, we haven't seen UCLA go against a true dual threat with an offense designed to take advantage of his talents, and it's going to be very interesting to see how they handle it. One thing to keep in mind is that, although Jim Mora has dominated this matchup with Rich Rodriguez, the only time UCLA had to deal with a true dual threat (Rodriguez's coveted type of quarterback) was year one against Matt Scott, and the Bruins knocked him out of the game pretty early on.

We think UCLA will be able to generate some yards on the ground against Arizona. There's very little to fear about that defense, and even if UCLA has to run off tackle, this is a defense that's vulnerable to any sort of rushing attack.  Since Arizona will probably commit more to the run to keep UCLA from killing the Wildcats that way, we also think there should be vulnerabilities in the passing game for Rosen to exploit. If UCLA's offense was really humming, this is the kind of game where the Bruins could put up 50. We aren't anticipating that, because the offense isn't really humming at this point in the season, but this should be the type of game where the Bruins can put up 35+.

The wildcard is the defense. We've really liked what we've seen out of the defense the last two weeks, but this is a type of offense UCLA hasn't really faced this year, which could present some challenges. The Bruins will likely gear up to stop the run, but dealing with this kind of running talent at quarterback is going to be interesting. If UCLA is able to stop him or limit him, that'll bode well for future challenges (including next week against Manny Wilkins).

We'll split the difference -- UCLA will mostly be able to score on Arizona, and the Bruins will be able to limit, but not stop, Arizona's running attack, as UCLA earns its first conference victory.

UCLA 38
Arizona 28

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