-- The Arizona Wildcats come to the Rose Bowl Saturday to take on the Bruins. The game kicks off at 12:00 on Fox Sports Net with Barry Thompkins, Petros Papadakis and Tom Watson calling the action.
-- Arizona is 2-1, having beaten Idaho 70-0, Toledo 41-16, and then suffering their own WAC loss to New Mexico, 36-28.
-- UCLA, of course, is 1-1, with the upset win over Tennessee, and then the blowout loss at the hands of BYU last week in Provo, Utah.
-- In the all-time series between the schools, UCLA holds a 19-11-2 lead, with the first meeting in 1929. UCLA has won five of the last seven games. The teams have split the last four contests, with each team winning on its home field.
-- The last win by the visitor in 2003 was when UCLA got a late touchdown from defensive tackle Rodney Leisle to rally past the Wildcats.
-- UCLA is 8-2-1 in the series in games played at the Rose Bowl. Arizona has won in Pasadena since 1999.
-- Arizona won the match-up last season, 34-27. UCLA starting quarterback Patrick Cowan was knocked out of the game early in the second half with a concussion.
-- UCLA has won six of its last seven Pac-10 openers. The last time UCLA opened its conference schedule against Arizona was in 1992, which was a 23-3 win for the Wildcats in Tucson.
-- Arizona is coached by Mike Stoops, who is in his fifth year at the helm of the Wildcats. His overall record as Arizona's head coach is 19-30, and 12-22 in the Pac-10. He has yet to post a winning season at Arizona, getting the closest in 2006 when he went 6-6. He came from Oklahoma, where he was the defensive coordinator for his brother, Bob, the Sooner's head coach. He's the defensive coordinator for the Wildcats, and they've had decent defenses since he arrived. After his first few seasons of dismal offenses, last year he went a very pass-happy spread. Stoops is thought to be on the hot seat, with this season potentially being a make-or-break one for him at Arizona.
-- Arizona played six games last season that were ultimately decided by seven points or less.
-- Last week against New Mexico, Arizona turned over the ball five times on two interceptions and three fumbles, with the turnovers leading to 19 New Mexico points. Similarly, UCLA turned the ball over three times, leading to 21 points for BYU.
-- Arizona is a perfect 17-for-17 inside the red zone this year.
-- UA receiver Mike Thomas is only 48 receptions away from becoming the Pac-10's all-time leader in receptions.
-- UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel is 4-0 against Arizona all-time.
-- The weather forecast calls for it to be 83 degrees and sunny Saturday. But the Rose Bowl field sits at only an elevation of 825 feet above sea level.
ARIZONA OFFENSE V UCLA DEFENSE
It's no secret that UCLA has struggled against the spread the last few years. And given the demoralization the defense faced last Saturday at BYU, this would have been a good time to face a team that would rather run the ball than throw it.
But alas, the Wildcats come to Arizona with the pass-happy offense of Arizona offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes, and quarterback Willie Tuitama (SR, 6-3, 220) has shown that when he's healthy, and not dealing with "concussive symptoms," he's going to throw for a ton of yards. This year, he's thrown for 792 yards and eight touchdowns in the first three games, including 321 yards on 27-of-50 passing and three touchdowns a week ago. But where he struggled last week was in giving the ball away, throwing his first two interceptions of the year and fumbling it away twice. When he holds onto the ball, he's dangerous, but turnovers have plagued him throughout his career.
Running back Nic Grigsby (SO, 5-10, 178) is the primary ball-carrier for the Wildcats, and he's kept the job to himself. Grigsby has ran for 376 yards (125.3 a game) and six touchdowns. His rushing total is 77% of the Wildcats running offense. Grigsby leads the Pac-10 in rushing, touchdowns and scoring.
True freshman Keola Antolin (FR, 5-8, 180) was getting the second-string carries but an ankle injury has sidelined him and he's doubtful for Saturday. Xavier Smith (JR, 5-11, 210) is next on the depth chart but Grigsby will get almost every carry.
Arizona is hopeful that tight end Rob Gronkowski (SO, 6-6, 260) will be back on Saturday; his presence will add another dimension to the Wildcat passing offense. Last year as a freshman, Gronkowski had 28 receptions for 525 yards and six touchdowns, and had his best day against UCLA a season ago, catching a career-best six passes for 94 yards. At 6-6, 260, Gronkowski would actually be playing offensive line at UCLA, but his athleticism has made him one of the better tight ends in the country. He's been out with an illness for the first three games, but the Cats are expecting him back this week.
Whether Gronkowski is back will determine how many passes receivers Delashaun Dean (SO, 6-4, 205) and Mike Thomas (SR, 5-8, 195) will see come their way.
Thomas is coming off a big day against the Lobos, catching 12 passes for 136 yards, his third 12-catch game of his career. On the year, he's averaging 101 yards a game and has scored three touchdowns. Thomas is small (it'd be like Courtney Viney out there catching passes), but he's quick and finds open space in the seam of defenses very well. It's amazing that Thomas could, by the end of the season, end his career as the Pac-10 all-time leader in receptions.
Dean went over the century mark a week ago, too, with a career-best 106 yards on six receptions. Terrell Turner (JR, 6-2, 190) is the third option for Tuitama, having caught 14 passes. Expect true freshman Juron Criner (FR, 6-4, 205) to be the fourth option for the Wildcats.
Arizona's offensive line has done a good job protecting its quarterback, allowing only four sacks in three games, but the red flag went up when three of them came against New Mexico. The line has also done a very good job of creating room for Grigsby. They're a veteran group, with the top guy being tackle Eben Britton (JR, 6-6, 310), an Outland Trophy candidate, who's in his third year as a starter. He's joined by fellow three-year starters, guard Joe Longacre (SR, 6-3, 315) and center Blake Kerley (JR, 6-2, 285).
|UCLA linebacker Reggie Carter.|
Carter's move to the weakside opens up the middle spot for redshirt freshman Steve Sloan, who'll be making his first career start against the Wildcats. The UCLA coaches have a great deal of confidence in Sloan, thus the reason they went with him and didn't keep Carter at the Mike and move a new starter into the Will spot.
In the secondary, Rahim Moore will remain in the starting lineup, getting the nod ahead of Aaron Ware at free safety. Moore started the opener at strong safety with Bret Lockett out, but with Lockett returning against BYU, Moore slid over to free. Last week, he had the first interception of his career. Cornerback Alterraun Verner, who was slated to be the shut-down guy for the Bruins this year, will look to bounce back from a miserable game against BYU, where he struggled against Austin Collie. Michael Norris remains the starter at the other corner spot.
Advantage: Arizona. Arizona has attempted to throw the ball more than it's tried to run it, and there's no reason to stop this week after watching BYU cut up UCLA's passing defense. With an offensive coordinator in Dykes who is as pass-crazy as they come, he's probably salivating at the thought, remembering what the Wildcat offense did a year ago against a even more more talented and experienced UCLA secondary.
UCLA's nickel D struggled a week ago, and if they get little to no pressure like they did against BYU, it's going to be another long, painful day. UCLA needs more disruption from Brian Price and Brigham Harwell to allow for Korey Bosworth and Tom Blake, as well as Reginald Stokes and Jones, to get to Tuitama. If they don't, it makes the back seven more vulnerable. There was an issue last week with the UCLA cornerbacks maintaining too big of a cushion when guarding BYU's receivers. DC DeWayne Walker said he wanted Verner to press the receivers more, but Verner didn't do it. You hope that they've gotten everything squared away by this week.
Sloan played a lot of snaps against BYU, so it's hopeful any jitters he has are already behind him, but with his first career start, you'd still have to think he could be vulnerable. Carter's move to the weakside should be a boost, provided Sloan is solid in his own coverage. John Hale had a nightmare of a game against BYU, but his back-up Akeem Ayers wasn't much better. Going up against an offense that might rival BYU for passing the ball, the UCLA passing defense is going to have to be considerably better if it hopes to keep them from not scoring in a BYU-like fashion. Again, getting pressure on the quarterback is key, and has always been key, and will always be key.
DeWayne Walker's defenses have had their problems with the spread, and a senior quarterback. It'd be a considerable departure if they didn't this week.
UCLA OFFENSE V. ARIZONA DEFENSE
Arizona's defense has played well in the first three games, giving up only 230 yards a game. But don't let the numbers fool you. They're a bit skewed thanks to games against one of the worst teams in the country in Idaho, who had 112 yards in total offense in the opener, and a down Toledo team, which had 244 yards.
New Mexico, known more for their defense than their offense, had 335 offensive yards, 221 of them on the ground. That's encouraging for UCLA, which has really struggled to run the ball – so much so that the Bruins are currently the worse running offense in the nation, averaging just 19 yards per game and .81 yards per carry. Through the air, New Mexico was a model of consistency against Arizona last week, throwing for only 114 yards but doing it on 14-for-18 passing. In Norm Chow's offense, consistency is key and if Kevin Craft can get right into his second-half form, Arizona's could be susceptible.
|Linebacker Ronnie Palmer.|
Up front, Arizona had to replace all four starters, but defensive end Ricky Elmore (SO, 6-5, 260), a native SoCal, has stepped in admirably. He's coming off the best game of his young career, with four tackles and two sacks. Opposite Elmore is Brooks Reed (SO, 6-3, 260), who had a career-best six tackles against New Mexico, another new starter who had 7 total career tackles before this season. Inside, Kaniela Tuipulotu (SO, 6-2, 280) and Earl Mitchell (JR, 6-2, 265) are the starters at tackle, and both are on the smaller side.
At linebacker, only one starter returns from last season, middle linebacker Ronnie Palmer (SR, 6-3, 245). Starting weakside linebacker, Xavier Kelley (JR, 5-11, 215), will likely be out for another week, so JC transfer Sterling Lewis (JR, 5-11, 225) looks to capitalize on his second career start, much the way he did last week when he had 12 tackles against New Mexico. Adrian McCovy (SR, 6-3, 225), who spurned UCLA for Arizona, starts at Sam for the Wildcats, and he's been solid to date for the Cats.
The secondary has done a good job against the pass, giving up only 111 yards a game, and they've done it with new personnel manning the cornerback positions. Freshman corner Trevin Wade (FR, 5-11, 177, who backs up starter Devin Ross (JR, 5-11, 170, had two picks in the opener. The other cornerback, Marquis Hundley (SR, 6-1, 175), is doing a good job holding off true freshman Robert Golden (FR, 65-11, 195), locking down the other corner spot, and he had his first career interception a week ago.
The biggest thing for UCLA's offense is to run the ball. But that's easier said than done, with both Kahlil Bell and Raymond Carter a bit nicked up. While it's a game-time decision by Rick Neuheisel whether Bell will play, Carter is expected to see the field Saturday, but he may be tentative after having his surgically-repaired knee popped against BYU, which sidelined him for the majority of the game. That leaves Chane Moline as the only healthy back who has a college carry. Moline didn't do much against BYU, and hasn't proven that he can be anything more than an occasional short-yardage guy.
Enter Derrick Coleman, the true freshman who's seen more work this week in practice and could be the guy among the freshman tailbacks who ends up playing this year. Johnathan Franklin has gotten a long look this week, too, but it appears that Coleman is ahead at this point. Aundre Dean has an ankle injury and is questionable.
UCLA's already struggling offensive line lost its anchor, center Micah Reed in the BYU game, so sophomore Jake Dean will make his first career start. UCLA has been juggling its offensive line this week in practice, and you could see some young guys sophomore Brandon Bennett and true freshman Jeff Baca get a chance to play. Ahead of Baca at tackle is incumbent Micah Kia, who was supposed to be UCLA's best OL but has struggled.
|Kevin Craft and Kahlil Bell.|
As we said earlier, the real key will be if Craft can contain his early-game struggles, and hold on to the ball, and throw like he has in the second half of the Tennessee and BYU games. Chow will likely construct an offense that will allow Craft to manage the game and open up things, but UCLA needs to be able to pound the ball to keep defenses honest in the passing game.
Advantage: Arizona. Granted, Arizona hasn't been really tested by prolific offenses in the first three games, but they have some confidence, and a defensive-minded coach in Mike Stoops who is as fiery as they come. And given UCLA's inability to run, and the fact that Arizona's weakness is its front seven, that could be an good trade-off for the Wildcats.
Arizona has solid special teams, thanks to Keenyn Crier (SO, 6-1, 200) punting and Jason Bondizio (SR, 6-9, 170) kicking. But with Cason gone, so is their big-play return man. With their first-string returner this season, Antolin, out, the Cats will sub in some guys without much experience, like Thomas or Ross.
So far, we're 1-1 in our predictions, and UCLA is 1-1 on the season.
One of the biggest factors in this game is who bounces back quicker. Arizona's first loss was a frustrating one, a game the Wildcats clearly could have, and should have won. Arizona gave up 19 points from five turnovers. Meanwhile, UCLA is licking its wounds from their worst loss in decades. The advantage for the Bruins is returning home, where they generally have played very well in the past few years. UCLA has also faced two talented teams in BYU and Tennessee, while Arizona has faced two poor teams and a mid-major Lobo squad.
On paper, Arizona has the advantage, thanks to one unit that is clearly better than any in this match-up – Arizona's high-flying offense. And very simply, until UCLA can figure out a spread offense, it's very difficult to give the Bruin defense an advantage when it matches up against one. On the other side of the ball, Arizona's weakness, its defensive line, then, also might be moot since it's facing UCLA's weakness, its offensive line.
UCLA could be playing for pride this week, trying to prove the BYU game was a fluke, and being at home in the Rose Bowl (though it could be a sparse crowd) should give it a boost. So, it's really UCLA's homefield advantage against Arizona's offensive advantage, and we have to go with Arizona here.