Arizona Preview

UCLA goes to Tucson to face Arizona, with a reeling Bruin defense taking on possibly the hottest offense in the country. There aren't too many indicators pointing toward the Bruins in this one...

FACTS AND FACTORS

-- UCLA travels to Tucson to take on Arizona Saturday at 3:30. The game will be televised on FS Prime Ticket in the Los Angeles area with Steve Physioc and James Washington providing commentary.

-- UCLA is 3-3, winning it's first three non-conference games and then dropping its first three Pac-10 games in a row.

-- Arizona is 4-2. In its non-conference schedule it beat Central Michigan and Northern Arizona, then lost to now #6-ranked Iowa, in Ames. In the Pac-10, the Wildcats are 2-1, having won on the road at Oregon State, lost at Washington, and won at home against Stanford.

-- Last week, at home, Arizona put together a come-from-behind victory over Stanford, 43-38. Nic Grigsby, Arizona's tailback, ran for a 57-yard touchdown with 2:57 left for the winning score. The two teams combined for a total of 1,137 yards and 49 first downs.

-- The Wildcats debuted at #22 in the first BCS rankings of the season this week. They are not ranked in either the AP or the USA Today/ESPN Poll.

-- UCLA owns a 19-12-2 advantage in the all-time series, which dates back to 1927.

-- Arizona is 9-8 against UCLA in games played in Arizona. UCLA hasn't won in Tucson since 2003.

-- Arizona won last year at the Rose Bowl, beating the Bruins, 31-10.

-- UCLA's last win in the series was in 2006, 27-7.

-- The last 10 games between the two schools have been decided by an average of 19 points, with only three by a touchdown or less. Either Arizona has blown out UCLA or UCLA has taken it to Arizona lately.

-- The primary theme of the game is Arizona trying to keep pace with the upper tier of the Pac-10, and UCLA trying to stop its three-game skid.

-- Mike Stoops is in his 6th year at Arizona, with a record of 29-36. After four years of non-winning records, and some grumbling about firing him from the Arizona faithful, Stoops then put up an 8-5 record in 2008. The storyline now out of Tucson is that he's turned around the program. He's known as a defensive guru.

-- Ranking #22 in the BCS rankings this week marks the first time Arizona has made the BCS rankings under Stoops.

-- Stoops hired Sonny Dykes in 2007 as his offensive coordinator from Texas Tech, and he brought with him the pass-happy, Texas Tech spread scheme.

-- Arizona tends to jump out offensively to start games and halves. Over the last two seasons, the Wildcats are out-scoring their opponents 146-100 in the first quarter, and 177-74 in the third quarter.

-- Since 1978, Arizona has a winning percentage of .899 in games when it's scored 30 points or more. In its entire history, it's 109-4 when scoring 40 points or more, which it did in four games last season, winning all four games.

-- So far this season, Arizona is averaging 30.5 points per game. In its last two home games, it's averaging 38.5 points.

-- In its three Pac-10 games, Arizona is averaging 38 points, 25 first downs and 467 yards per game.

-- Arizona has won 10 of its past 12 home games, losing only to No. 6 USC (17-10 last season) and No. 22 Oregon State (19-17 last season).

-- The weather forecast for Saturday calls for sunny skies and 88 degrees in Tucson.

UCLA'S OFFENSE V. ARIZONA'S DEFENSE

As a UCLA fan, if you were lamenting UCLA's defensive performance last week against Cal, you might want to consider what Arizona fans went through watching their defense against Stanford.

The Arizona defense allowed 584 yards, 26 first downs, and 12 yards per pass. The Cardinal had touchdown drives of 44, 82, 80 and 86 yards. Stanford's quarterback Andrew Luck threw for 423 yards and three touchdowns, on only 21 completions.

Defensive Coordinator Mark Stoops called it "embarrassing."

And it's not like Arizona's sieve of a defense last week was an aberration. In its three games against Pac-10 schools, the Wildcats gave up an average of 35 points, 23 first downs and 415 yards per game. That was against Stanford, Washington and Oregon State, with UDub and OSU in the bottom half of the conference in terms of overall offense.

Up front, Arizona has done well, at least against defending the run, allowing 107 yards per game, which is good enough for fourth in the Pac-10 and 27th in the country. While it did give up 150 yards on the ground to Stanford, the Cardinal averaged just 3.3 yards per carry – and that's against probably the best power running game in the conference.

Defensive end Ricky Elmore.
The Wildcats have been pretty strong against the run mostly because of its linebackers. They were perhaps the biggest question mark coming into the season, but the question has been answered by senior middle linebacker Vuna Tuihalamaka (6-2, 230). Tuihalamaka was a key reserve and special teams player a year ago and he's really stepped up into the starting middle linebacker spot, leading the team in tackles with 40. Senior weaksider Xavier Kelley (5-11, 215) is the returning starter and he's been having a solid year.

The front four have been quietly effective, with junior end Ricky Elmore (6-5, 250) making the most noise. With junior designated pass rusher Brooks Reed (6-3, 255) having been out with a sprained ankle, Elmore has been filling his shoes with 5.5 sacks. Reed is expected to be close to full-go for the UCLA game.

Inside, senior tackle Earl Mitchell (6-2, 295) has been dependable against the run.

In the back, the Wildcats have been vulnerable, which is a bit surprising since Arizona's secondary coming into the season was expected to be a strength. Senior cornerback Devin Ross (5-11, 175) is still considered one of the best at his position in the conference. Sophomore corner Tevin Wade (5-11, 182) has had some moments, with four interceptions so far this season, but both have also been burned some this season. Sophomore strong safety Robert Golden (5-11, 190) is considered an up-and-comer, playing next to senior veteran free safety Cam Nelson (6-1, 202).

UCLA's offense had a bit of coming-out last week, putting together the best offensive production in one game under Neuheisel and Chow. Quarterback Kevin Prince had the most productive game of his young career, throwing for 311 yards.

It was an incremental step in the development of Chow's offense at UCLA.

Logan Paulsen.
Senior tight end Logan Paulsen has become a favorite target, catching five balls against Cal a week ago, and looking very hard to bring down after the catch. Sophomore receiver Taylor Embree also seems to be settling down now, and getting open.

Critical to the effectiveness last week was the performance of the UCLA offensive line, which gave Prince time to throw.

Running back Johnathan Franklin had the best run from scrimmage for a Bruin last week in quite some time. Still nursing an ankle injury, he appeared to be relatively injury-free this week in practice. Junior Christian Ramirez, again, has been getting more reps in practice this week, like he has in previous weeks even though it never really manifested itself in games.

Advantage: Even. We'd almost reflexively go against UCLA's young offense on the road, but last week it provided a glimmer of improvement, and Arizona's defense last week looked atrocious.

UCLA has more chance for hope. The offensive line provided good pass protection last week against Cal, and Arizona's pass rush, at least up until this week, hasn't been anything to fear. Perhaps the return of Reed will change that for the Wildcats.

If UCLA is going to be effective offensively in this game, it's plainly going to have to throw. Last week, Stanford, the premier power-running team in the conference, went to the air and discovered that was where Arizona's defensive vulnerability is. We'll see if UCLA's offensive brain trust trusts its young quarterback to get it done.

Arizona's high-power offense is almost certainly going to put up points, so UCLA is going to have to answer with points. Field goals, again, aren't going to get it done in this one. UCLA needs to be aggressive offensively, and try to get a good amount of points on the board early, so it doesn't have to play catch-up to Arizona's offense.

ARIZONA'S OFFENSE V. UCLA'S DEFENSE

Bad timing.

UCLA's defense was reeling against Cal last week, and now it goes on the road to face one of the hottest and toughest-to-defend offenses perhaps in the country.

It's the #1 offense in the Pac-10, averaging 443.7 yards per game, and #14 in the nation.

The one question that has to be asked about Arizona sophomore quarterback Nick Foles (6-5, 235) is: What took them so long?

Foles didn't start for the first three games of the season for Arizona. But, after starting the last three games, he's #1 in passing efficiency in the conference.

Tailback Nic Grigsby.
His numbers are astounding. He's averaging 351 yards passing and 35 completions, with 8 touchdowns and one interception, in the three games he's started. On the season, he's completing an amazing 73.9%.

In the last two games he's thrown for 799 yards, and completed 76% of his passes.

Having transferred from Michigan State that makes for a second question, then. Hey Spartans, what were you thinking? Can you say Troy Aikman and Oklahoma?

The Arizona coaches' excuse, at least, is that Foles didn't show this kind of performance in practice, either last spring of this fall.

It's another testament to some players being gamers and not practice guys.

Foles is a pocket passer, with good arm strength. What's really distinguished him is his decision-making and accuracy. He just simply doesn't make bad throws and doesn't take many risks throwing into coverage.

It's exactly what is needed in Dykes' offense. The Texas Tech version of the spread is really dependent on the quarterback making the right play call at the line of scrimmage and making the right reads. More than other spread attacks, Arizona's utilizes the running backs and tight ends on short passing routes and screens, giving Foles even more higher-percentage throws.

It helped last week when star junior running back Nic Grigsby (5-10, 190) returned full strength, giving the Wildcats more balance in their offense. Against Stanford, Arizona not only threw for 415 yards but ran for 138. You could make the case that Grigbsy was the difference in Arizona's come-from-behind win against the Cardinal, scampering for 57 yards with 2:57 left for the winning score.

Grigbsy is small and shifty, and even though he's not an every-down back type of guy, he ran for 1,153 yards last season. He's a big-play threat every time he touches the ball, the type UCLA didn't do very well against last week against Cal. He's averaging an impressive 8.2 yards per carry because of his big runs.

Getting five to seven carries each per game to help carry the load are sophomore Keola Antolin (5-8, 186) and freshman Greg Nwoko (6-2, 220), who both represent a change of pace in the backfield.

What has been almost as surprising as Foles' emergence is the consistently good play Arizona has gotten out of its offensive line, which had to replace some key starters and has been hit some by injury. Arizona is without its starting left guard, Conan Amituanai, who is out with a knee injury through the end of October. Then, last week, starting left tackle Mike Diaz (6-5, 320) sat out because of illness. Arizona expects him back, but he'll slip into the left guard spot, and junior Phillip Garcia (6-7, 325) will start another game at left tackle. Junior center Colin Baxter (6-4, 295) is a good one.

The Wildcats have seen this offensive explosion without probably their best offensive player. All-Pac-10 junior tight end Rob Gronkowski went down in August with a herniated disk and nerve damage in his back that required surgery.

But the Arizona receiving corps hasn't seemingly missed a beat. It has four receivers that each have more receptions than UCLA's top receiver.

Senior Terrell Turner (6-2, 195) is having an all-conference type of season so far, with 30 catches and 3 touchdowns. David Roberts (6-0, 190) is probably benefitting most from the absence of Gronkowski, finding inside seams for short routes. Sophomore receiver Juron Criner (6-4, 210) tied the second-best single game reception total in Arizona history last week when he had 12 catches for 152 yards. He tied Roberts, who did it against Washington earlier in the season. There's also sophomore David Douglas (6-1, 190), who has been particularly tough to corral once he catches the ball, and he has 25 receptions on the year.

And then throw in the 22 catches by Arizona's running backs, and you have balls being thrown all over the field. Arizona throws many screen passes, to its back and receivers.

Alterraun Verner.
In other words, UCLA's pass defense is going to be under siege. And it's in a state of flux to begin with as true freshman cornerback Sheldon Price has been going through growing pains while redshirt freshman starter Aaron Hester returns from a broken leg. Hester is able to play this week, but probably won't play much, being his first week back and still rusty. It didn't help last week when UCLA's lockdown corner, Alterraun Verner, got beat on a few plays. Tackling has been a problem among UCLA's back four, so that's the reason Glenn Love might get more snaps at strong safety over Tony Dye.

Tackling and gap integrity have been a big issue in UCLA's rushing defense. What was supposed to be UCLA's defensive strength, its linebackers, hasn't been. Reggie Carter is trying to play through a nagging knee injury, which he really should be sitting out for a few weeks to get healthy, and strongside linebacker Akeem Ayers has been going through growing pains himself, even though he actually had a better game against Cal last week.

UCLA's defensive issues have been, mostly, for its younger players to stay disciplined and fill their assignments, rather than getting out of their assignments when they're lured by making a big play. Ayers and defensive end Datone Jones have been susceptible to this.

Advantage: Arizona. For the UCLA defense, it's the worst of times and the worst of times. Coming off a defensive performance against Cal where it struggled to make a tackle in the open field, and with its middle linebacker banged up, it now faces an offense that does everything it can to get playmakers the ball in the open field. Hopefully Grigsby is still a little hampered and not his true self, because he is just about as elusive as Cal's backs.

Foles presents big problems. He gets rid of the ball so quickly opposing teams can't get pressure on him. Arizona is 4th in the country in sacks allowed, giving up just .67 per game. And UCLA's pass rush hasn't been very threatening anyway.

So, Foles will probably have a great deal of time, even more time than he needs, to pick apart UCLA's secondary. UCLA will have to utilize nickel and dime packages to try to cover all of the guys Arizona puts into the pattern, and that will put more untested guys like Courtney Viney and walk-on Andrew Abbott on the field in coverage. It will then also open up running seams for Grigbsy and Antolin.

Really, the only hope against an offense like this with such a precise quarterback is to disrupt him in the pocket. If there was ever a game where UCLA should get more aggressive defensively and try to pressure the quarterback this is it. Because it's just about impossible to sit back in a nickel and dime and try to cover everyone when Foles has time to throw.

SPECIAL TEAMS

UCLA has probably the best field goal kicker in the country, Kai Forbath, who has benefited from UCLA's offense stalling in the red zone. Arizona's kicker, sophomore Alex Zendejas, is also having a good year, so far 10 for 12 on the season. UCLA's punter, Jeff Locke, leads the conference, averaging 41.7 yards per punt, while Arizona's Keenyn Crier is in the bottom third of the conference, averaging 36.7.

Arizona is also 119th in the nation (second to last) in punt returns, averaging -.33 yards per return, mostly because it's only returned three punts.

Prediction

There aren't many indicators pointing toward UCLA in this one. UCLA has an advantage in special teams, Arizona has had some issues with penalties, and they do put the ball on the ground quite a bit.

But that's not much. As we said above, Arizona's defense is definitely suspect, with the yards and points it's been giving up against its Pac-10 opponents, but it's difficult to pick UCLA's fledgling offense over Arizona's defense in Tucson.

Then, on the other side of the ball, it's just a very tough, badly-timed match-up for UCLA's defense.

What will be interesting to watch is whether UCLA comes out conservatively – both offensively and defensively – in this one. Arizona isn't exactly a team you can eke out a win against. They're going to put a lot of points on the board, and they allow you a good amount of points. So, it stands to reason that this would be a good opportunity for UCLA to take more risks – put more pressure on the Arizona quarterback and open up the UCLA offense even more.

We'll see…

Arizona 38
UCLA 24


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