Preview of Arizona Game

The Wildcats are young, thin and banged up, but they've played well in the last two games behind their new quarterback, true freshman Willie Tuitama. Will UCLA have to mount a fourth-quarter comeback in this one, too?

NOTEWORTHY FACTORS:

-- UCLA travels to Tucson to take on Arizona Saturday. The game will kick off at 3:22 PST, and be televised in the Los Angeles area by Fox Sports New West 2 with Bill Macdonald and Mike Sherrard as commentators.

-- Arizona is 2-6 overall and 1-4 in the Pac-10.  They've lost to Utah (27-24); then-#12 Purdue (31-24), then #12 Cal (28-0), #1 USC (42-21); Stanford (20-16) and #15 Oregon (28-21).  They've beaten Northern Arizona (31-12) early, and last week bested Oregon State in Corvallis, 29-27.

-- UCLA is 8-0 and 5-0 in the Pac-10, ranked #7 in the AP and USA Today/ESPN polls, and #5 in the BCS rankings.

I-- t's the 30th meeting between the two schools, with the series going back to 1927, and UCLA holds a 18-9-2 edge.  UCLA has won the last four meetings, and the last four games in Tucson, dating back to 1998. 

-- Last year, UCLA jumped out to a 23-3 halftime lead and cruised to a 37-17 win.  Drew Olson and Marcedes Lewis hooked up on three scoring passes.

-- In 2003, in Tucson, UCLA rallied from a 21-10 deficit to pull out a win, 24-21.

-- UCLA has obviously dominated the series with Arizona, but if there's a good time for the Wildcats to play UCLA it's in November. Arizona is 4-2 against UCLA in the month and all of the games were played in Tucson.  Four of the games were decided by six points or less.

-- The last time Arizona faced a ranked UCLA team was in 1998 when the #5-ranked Bruins blitzed Arizona, 52-28.

-- Arizona is coached by Mike Stoops, who is in his third year in Tucson, with an overall record of 7-24. Arizona is his first head coaching position, after spending five years as a defensive coordinator under his brother, Bob, at Oklahoma.  He is known for being a very good defensive coach, and has made Arizona a solid defensive team since arriving in Tucson.

-- UCLA's Maurice Drew is moving up the all-time UCLA record books, currently #9 in career scoring with 222 points and #10 in career rushing with 2,276 yards.

-- Only six other UCLA teams have had 8-game winning streaks during the season.

-- You might not recognize the Wildcats when they take the field Saturday. They've played in five different uniform combinations this season.

ARIZONA'S OFFENSE V. UCLA'S DEFENSE

It's the clash of the not-so-Titans.

Arizona's offense is ranked last in rushing offense (97 per game), and second to last in total offense (330) in the conference.

UCLA's defense is last in rushing defense (212).

Now, the good spin on this is that the biggest weakness of this UCLA team - its rushing defense - is going up against the worse rushing team in the conference.

And if Arizona hadn't had an aberration when it ran for 212 yards against Oregon two weeks ago, their rushing average would be considerably worse.

Plainly, Arizona doesn't run the ball well.  And they have a pretty decent running back in senior Mike Bell (6-0, 212), who is actually one of the best running backs in Wildcat history.  He has good size and likes to hit, and is fairly elusive, with decent speed.  He's good for 15 yards but doesn't tend to bust too many. It's a testament to the fact that he's pretty good that he's averaging 4.6 yards per carry on a team that averages just 3 yards per rush. 

Arizona has struggled to find a capable back up to Bell, though. Senior Gilbert Harris (6-1, 223) hasn't shown much, while third-stringer, sophomore Chris Henry (6-0, 220) has been better, with good strength running tackle to tackle. 

The problem primarily with Arizona has been with its offensive line. They've been getting beaten in the trenches, with just not a great deal of talent up front.  Arizona's best is probably senior guard Kili Lefotu (6-5, 318), who is versatile, having played a couple of different positions in his career. The're not very big either, after Lefotu averaging 289 pounds. 

This is all great news for UCLA and its undersized defensive line. It was reported in the Los Angeles Times today that starting true freshman defensive tackle Chase Moline is actually just 245 pounds even though he's listed at 6-1 and 274.  The other starting d-tackle, sophomore Brigham Harwell is listed at 274 also, but you have to think he's probably not that much either.

The Arizona offensive line will probably still be a challenge for UCLA's d-line, but if there is ever a game where UCLA's d-line might be close to even in its match-up against an opponent's offensive line, this is probably it.

Arizona's freshman QB, Willie Tuitama.

Arizona's offense, which has struggled for most of the season, turned itself around some when it put in true freshman quarterback Willie Tuitama (6-2, 212) two weeks ago against Oregon, and then he started his first game last week against Oregon State, a game the Wildcats surprisingly won.  Arizona still struggled to run the ball against Oregon State (49 yards on 30 carries), but their passing offense definitely has blossomed under Tuitama. Sophomore Richard Kovalcheck (6-3, 222), who was recruited by UCLA, is bigger and has a stronger arm than Tuitama, but struggled in making decisions and completing passes, which are some pretty important components in quarterbacking success. Tuitama, though, in a game and a half, is 31 of 56 for 517 yards and four touchdowns against just one interception. Last week against Oregon State he was 13 of 22 for 335 yards.  For a true freshman, he's showed remarkable poise and it's paid off. He helped engineer comeback against Oregon when the Wildcats were down by three touchdowns to almost pull it out, 28-21.  With Tuitama as its quarterback, Arizona has out-scored its opponents 50-34. 

Tuitama has also benefitted from the coming-out parties of two other Arizona youngsters, freshman receiver Mike Thomas (5-8, 173) and sophomore receiver Anthony Johnson (6-2, 205).  Last week against Oregon State both had career receiving days, with Thomas catching 4 balls for 162 yards and a 75-yard touchdown pass, and Johnson catching three passes for 117 yards.  Admittedly, OSU's passing defense is poor, the worst in the conference, in fact.  But Thomas has been somewhat of a freshman sensation at Arizona, leading the team in receptions (43) and receiving yards (622). He's fast and shifty and so small he's hard to corral.  Another small, shifty receiver, junior Syndric Steptoe (5-9, 182) is the usual starter on the other side, but he sat out last week against OSU while he's expected to return this week.

Arizona also likes to go to its tight end pretty consistently, junior Brad Wood (6-4, 245). 

UCLA's Spencer Havner.

But the sudden genesis of an offense for Arizona can really be attributed to Tuitama.  UCLA will undoubtedly try to rattle the youngster by utilizing different blitzing schemes.  All-American linebacker Spencer Havner perhaps had his best game of the year last week against Stanford, and he's got to be salivating over going after a true freshman quarterback. His play against the Cardinal was critical in UCLA holding its opponent to its lowest rushing total in Pac-10 play.  It's the time of the season, and the situation, with UCLA trying to preserve a very successful season, for veterans like Havner to step up and take the team on their backs. 

UCLA's defensive line did perform better last week than it had, but it's hard to determine if that was just because it faced the anemic Stanford running attack of there was actual improvement. It might be a case this week you also don't know which to attribute it to, but that UCLA's defensive line performs better against a struggling Arizona offensive line. 

UCLA's defensive secondary has had a good year, #1 in pass defense in the conference, allowing 202 yards per game. It might be a little skewed since opponents tend to run the ball a great deal against UCLA, but nonetheless, UCLA's pass defense has been solid. 

Advantage:  Even.  Only for the second week this season have we called this an even match-up.  And if Tuitama hadn't sparked the Arizona offense in the last couple of weeks, we would have given the advantage to UCLA.  With Tuitama putting some life into Arizona's passing game, it makes it now a little more difficult for defenses to do to the Arizona offense that they've been doing for three years - stack the box. Undoubtedly, UCLA will again try to stop the Arizona running game and make true freshman Tuitama beat them. The one thing that the Arizona offensive line has done pretty well is protect the quarterback, and that actually has been pretty critical in giving Tuitama the time to be effective in the last two weeks. They've only suffered 3 sacks in the last two weeks.  Expect UCLA's defensive coordinator Larry Kerr to put in some new wrinkles to confuse Tuitama and keep him having to think too much, wondering where the blitzes are coming from.  Expect UCLA's pass defense to try to keep the Arizona long-ball threats in front of them, and make Tuitama have to sustain 70- and 8-yard drives down the field to score. 

UCLA'S OFFENSE V. ARIZONA'S DEFENSE

It's a good match-up.

Arizona has a solid defense, fourth in the Pac-10 in total yards allowed per game (413), especially given the adversity it's gone through.  

They're actually quite a bit like UCLA's defense, which is good against the pass (228 yards per game through the air), but poor against the run (185).

Like with its offensive line, Arizona is lacking the horses up front on defense.  In fact, Arizona's entire front seven is a bit suspect.

The Wildcats returned only two starters from last year's front seven, a front seven that wasn't all that good either.  That's not a good sign. And only one among the front seven is a senior, defensive end Copeland Bryan (6-4, 240), who has been hobbled somewhat by injury this season.  

Arizona is patching it together with some youngsters and while it might be working in the defensive secondary, it's not doing well up front. Its defensive tackles are sophomore Yaniv Barnett (6-1, 285) and JC transfer Ricky Parker (6-4, 275), and the two have been generally pushed around for most of the year. These are the two that Arizona settled on after trying a couple of others earlier in the year.  It's in fact, very similar to UCLA in the fact that the senior potential star of the DL, defensive end Marcus Smith, went down with an injured ankle in the second game of the season.   He's been replaced by a redshirt freshman Johnathan Turner (6-3, 250).  All in all, the line is young, banged up and thin, and it's shown on the field.

There has been some problems at linebacker, too. Arizona starts two linebackers and a rover, and it's had to juggle six different players as starters at its linebacker positions.  Perhaps their best at the position, sophomore Dane Krogstad, has been out since mid-October with a knee injury. He was leading the team in tackles before he went down. Redshirt freshman Ronnie Palmer (6-2, 229) has been filling in, and while Arizona observers feel he's a star in the making, he's still very inexperienced.  Sophomore Spencer Larsen (6-1, 236) has started two games after a hamstring injury slowed him while he was still recovering from a torn knee ligament.

Arizona's Darrell Brooks.

Arizona's strength, definitely, is in its secondary, not only in personnel, but in coaching, since Stoops and his brother, Mark, coach this unit of the team themselves. Senior free safety Darrell Brooks (6-1, 201) is one of the best in the conference, with good size and a great nose for the ball. Sophomore cornerback Antoine Cason (6-0, 182) is getting accolades, and deservedly so. He is a true lock-down corner on one side.

Then also stepping up has been the rest of the secondary. Junior strong safety Michael Johnson (6-2, 205) had an astounding three interceptions last week against Oregon State, returning one 40 yards for a touchdown. It was his first start, replacing veteran, senior Lamon Means (6-3, 217). 

Facing Arizona's secondary is a big test for UCLA's passing game.  It's clear that UCLA's passing game has to be clicking early for UCLA's offense to do likewise.  Quarterback Drew Olson getting off to a good start has been critical in UCLA averting its overall slow starts.  UCLA has gotten some big lifts from receivers Brandon Breazell and Joe Cowan in recent weeks, especially in their ability to get behind defenders.  Stretching the defense, getting the ball downfield, also seems to be a big key in getting UCLA's offense jump-started.

Maurice Drew head-to-head.

All year it seems we've been waiting for a big rushing game from star tailback Maurice Drew. And, if there was ever a game that pointed to it, this is it, with the state of Arizona's front seven.  

A big factor in that actually happening could be the state of UCLA's offensive line. Veteran center Mike McCloskey is out, and he'll be replaced by junior guard/center Robert  Chai. Chai played fairly well last week in relief of McCloskey, but McCloskey is a loss. 

Advantage: UCLA.  If UCLA can't run the ball on Saturday, it really has to go back to the drawing board. Arizona isn't good up front - they're not very talented, and young and thin - and that's both in their defensive line and linebackers.  UCLA has to do something effectively - either pass or run the ball - early if it hopes to avoid its notorious slow start.  Watch for offensive coordinator Tom Cable to emphasize the run early, while throwing short on first down to get UCLA off on the right foot.  Marcedes Lewis, as always, is a tough match-up for the defense, and it's important that UCLA look to him earlier than when they're trying to mount a second-half comeback.

With special teams, Arizona has a good placekicker in Nick Folk, and a very good punter in Danny Baugher, who is averaging 47 yards per punt.  He sends up booming kicks, which are very returnable, so watch for Maurice Drew to potentially have some opportunities for returns in this game, unless Arizona chooses to kick away from Drew.

Prediction:

Arizona isn't very good, but they aren't as bad as you might think. They've played pretty well the last two weeks and are a different team offensively with Tuitama at quarterback. While their offense has been better, it still isn't great, not being able to run the ball well, which is a best-case scenario for UCLA's defense. 

You migth think that UCLA's vaunted passing game is the element of the game that will win it for the Bruins. And certainly, UCLA will have to pass the ball successfully to win. A big indicator will be if UCLA is efficient passing the ball on first down (where did I get that information from?). If it's not doing so early, it very well could be an indicator that UCLA will sputter on offense early again and you could be in for another comeback scenario.

But really where UCLA should win this game is in running the ball.  It's time for UCLA's offensive line to own a game in the trenches, from the first offensive series, and this is the prime game to do it, with Arizona being so poor against the run.  Watch for UCLA to try to grind out a conservative win Saturday, one that will solidly earn them a lead early that they can build on throughout the afternoon. 

With this UCLA team, you have to think just about any opponent will be in a game against them. And the fact that Arizona has played better offensively in the last two games cuts the margin down a bit. But there isn't any way UCLA should lose this game, going by the match-ups on paper.  Now, if UCLA comes out flat, it certainly could lose. But UCLA practiced well this week, with good intensity and crispness, and that's been a relative sign throughout the season that they'd have a more focused game.

UCLA  34
Arizona 27


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