The UCLA Bruins are hosting the Arizona Wildcats in a pivotal Week 4 matchup that can see the Bruins get back to .500 for the season. It also sees a Wildcats program that is in need of a victory in a bad way after dropping their first two games of the year and having their opener against Utah canceled.
We spoke with Brian Pedersen over at SB Nation’s Arizona site, AZ Desert Swarm, who was kind enough to answer our burning questions ahead of this matchup.
BN: By all box-score accounts, Grant Gunnell is having an OK season so far. You don’t complete 66.7% of your passes in two straight games without throwing some catchable balls. Is he getting let down by his teammates or is he padding his statistics with some garbage-time numbers against Washington?
AZDS: It’s been a little of both. He was great almost the whole game against USC, save for throwing a pick on the opening possession, while against Washington most of his yardage came after Arizona was down 37-0 and Washington had its backups in. His line hasn’t performed nearly as well as hoped, allowing nine sacks in two games, but maybe the biggest issue he’s had to deal with so far has been his receivers’ inability to get open in man-to-man coverage. Opponents will continue to take this approach until those targets create space.
BN: The rushing attack has found the end zone once. Is that a product of bad offensive line play or play-calling in the red zone?
AZDS: Arizona has only been in the red zone five times in two games, resulting in just 10 plays snapped inside opponents’ 20-yard line. Only four of those have been runs, so this seems like more an issue of the play selection close to the goal line. Gary Brightwell is averaging 5.2 yards per carry but only one of his 32 rush attempts have come in the red zone.
BN: The defense was a relatively unknown unit coming into the season with transfers away — but how have the two big-man transfers fared through two games in Aaron Blackwell and Roy Lopez?
AZDS: Those two have been a godsend so far, particularly Lopez, who is a heck of run stopper. They have forced opponents to go outside in order to run the ball, which has exposed Arizona’s lack of lateral speed on the edge as well as a safety corps that just can’t tackle well. However, the biggest revelation on defense to this point has been the play of redshirt junior linebacker Rourke Freeburg, a walk-on who only played special teams before this season. He’s shown great instincts and awareness, though for as well as he’s performed it’s very telling that Arizona’s best overall defender right now might not be a scholarship athlete.
BN: Both quarterbacks have seen success for UCLA this season — DTR with his legs and Griffin with his arm. Albeit, Griffin’s game plan against Oregon was an easy one for him to read and throw to across the middle of the field. Who patrols the middle of the field and can they stand up against this passing attack that did indeed look solid against the vaunted Ducks defense?
AZDS: Senior Anthony Pandy is calling the shots for Arizona on defense, and in a way this has impacted his performance. The same thing happened to Colin Schooler a year ago, where he was so focused on making sure others were in the right place that he often wasn’t. The Wildcats’ corners are solid, and the linebackers can hold their own in pass coverage—except for third down, when apparently the concept of not allowing someone to be open past the sticks is foreign—but as noted earlier the safety position is a major weakness.
BN: Can’t let you out of here without a prediction: Can Arizona get it done against UCLA, with the quarterback in question, or is this another loss in a row for the Wildcats?
AZDS: While I had this game circled before the season as a win for Arizona, that was mostly the byproduct of expecting UCLA to be a dumpster fire. The Bruins have mildly impressed me to this point, and combined that with Kevin Sumlin’s woeful 2-10 road record at UA and you get the potential for another beatdown. It’s also worth noting—and I love bringing up this stat—since Arizona converted its home field to artificial turf in 2013 it has gone 3-17 on natural grass, with all three wins coming at Colorado’s Folsom Field. Rather than predict a blowout, I’ll opt for a one-score margin with UCLA winning 33-27.
Thanks again for joining us, Brian!