Thanks to our laser-focus on all things UCLA athletics, we tend to not be experts when it comes to our opponents. Luckily, we do know some experts when it comes to the Arizona Wildcats, so we talked to our friend Scott Moran over at our SBNation sister site Arizona Desert Swarm, who was kind enough to answer our questions.
BN: This season does not seem like it’s gone according to plan for the Wildcats. Has Khalil Tate’s injury really caused all of these issues, or is it something deeper?
Scott: Tate being hurt is obviously a devastating blow to Arizona, but I don’t think that’s entirely to blame for our woes this season. Kevin Sumlin and Noel Mazzone have failed to adjust their pass-happy scheme to Rich Rodriguez’s run-happy personnel, and the result has been a mess on offense. Couple that with some disappointing development on a young defense, and you have the ingredients for one mediocre team. Tate’s injury has just made everything worse, although in this scheme it could be a blessing in disguise for the team’s chances on the field. I feel awful for Tate this season, he’s gone from Heisman hopeful and being essentially the mayor of Tucson to fans thinking it’s best that he sit the bench in two months.
BN: UCLA fans have become intimately familiar with Noel Mazzone over the years. How have his offensive concepts meshed with Arizona’s existing personnel?
Scott: Like I said above, Arizona’s offense is so flat this year precisely because Mazzone hasn’t adjusted his scheme. Mazzone wasn’t always highly regarded as an offensive coordinator at his previous stops, but he could be relied on for some exciting pass plays. With a team built almost entirely to run the run-first spread, coupled with a huge problem with undersized players, Mazzone’s scheme just straight up does not work this season. Sumlin’s recruited better than RichRod, and he’s recruiting players that fit the Sumlin-Mazzone offense, so there’s hope for a better future. Still, this team has such talent on offense that it really stinks it’s going to waste due to a mismatch with scheme.
BN: Arizona’s defense has seemed very inconsistent, but putting up more bad performances than good. Marcel Yates kept his job in the transition, so is this a case of him not being good enough, or the defense just lacking talent?
Scott: It’s definitely a litte bit of both, but if I absolutely had to pick just one I’d say it’s more on Yates than anyone. Again, RichRod’s recruiting wasn’t stellar and almost all of Arizona’s players are quite small, so the defense doesn’t have the edge physically. Despite that, the talent is clearly there. Colin Schooler and Tony Fields are two great linebackers who are both young, Jace Whittaker and Lorenzo Burns are a great pair in the secondary, and players like Kylan Wilborn and PJ Johnson have helped improve the pass rush. Despite that, the defense is still struggling mightily. It’s been rumored that the players demanded Yates be retained during the coaching transition, and I understand why since he genuinely seems like a great guy. At this point though, the blame has to fall on him for the lack of defensive improvement.
BN: Which Arizona player is going to have the biggest impact on this game (positively or negatively)?
Scott: The easy answer is Rhett Rodriguez. It’s his first start, and he has to do it on the road in the most famous college football stadium against a surging UCLA team. Rodriguez’s skill set is much more of a fit for the new Arizona offense, and he seems like a smart player so I do think there’s a real chance for Arizona here. Still, trusting a sophomore in his first career start on the road is not desirable, and I think he’s likely to do well but not well enough.
BN: What’s your prediction for the final score of the game?
Scott: It’s taken til now for me to run out of optimism for the 2018 Wildcats. I just don’t see how this team is going to do much of anything the rest of the season as they continue to adjust to the new coaching staff. I’ll say UCLA wins 38-27, but that RhettRod looks great and gives us a glimmer of hope.