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UCLA Football 2019 Opponent Preview: Arizona Wildcats

Arizona didn’t leap forward in Kevin Sumlin’s first year. Will year two be more of the same?

NCAA Football: Arizona State at Arizona Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to Bruins Nation’s opponent preview series for the 2019 UCLA Bruins football season! We are taking a look at an upcoming opponent this year, examining their strengths and weaknesses, and making a bold prediction regarding the outcome.

It’s time to take a look at UCLA’s 5th opponent: the Arizona Wildcats.

Last Year

Arizona, much like UCLA and Arizona State, fired their coach after the 2018 season and hired former Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin to take over. Sumlin had a history of immediate success from his tenures at A&M and Houston, and the idea was that he could potentially do so again with a Heisman candidate Khalil Tate back at quarterback.

Unfortunately, everything broke bad. Early season losses to BYU and Houston, a road loss to what ended up to be a poor UCLA team, and general poor play doomed the Wildcats. Worse still, Khalil Tate hurt his ankle, leading to some sporadic play for the rest of the season. Despite all of that, Arizona still had a chance at bowl eligibility if they had won their final game against Arizona State. Instead, they blew a 19-point lead and missed a kick late. It was not the best foot forward for Sumlin’s squad.

Offensive Preview

Rumors swirled during the season that Noel Mazzone would retire at the end of it. Yet here we are, with Mazzone still in controls of the Arizona offense. I’m actually someone who thinks Mazzone’s offensive system can work, just that he has a tendency to really screw his team over with some bad play calls. I’m sure things will continue to work out just fine.

Tate is back. Really, that’s all I should have to say for this part, but it’s important to note that he should theoretically be healthy for the start of the year. Last year, he was hindered by an ankle injury for the first half but, with a healthy offseason up to this point, he has a chance to return to the world-beater he was in 2017 and parts of 2018. That in itself can go a long way to helping the Wildcats improve.

What should also help them is the return of J.J. Taylor at running back. Taylor is small of stature but has racked up 2,542 yards rushing in his career and that should only improve going forward. Taylor’s production becomes even more important in a Noel Mazzone offense that loves to run the ball but is hesitant to have Tate be the one to do it.

Tate may have to try and run more this year, however, because the wide receiver group is starting over. The top three receivers from last year are all gone. So, Arizona will be counting on last year’s backups to provide meaningful snaps in an increased roll this year.

Defensive Preview

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Arizona’s defense is still bad.

Marcel Yates has yet to prove himself to be a good defensive coordinator and that’s hurt Arizona’s ability to win games, especially against teams that want to pass. Arizona was surprisingly good against the run, but they failed repeatedly to stop teams on passing downs, which led to a lot of long, sustained drives by opposing teams.

Linebacker Colin Schooler has turned himself into an anchor for the Wildcats defense, He finished last year with 119 tackles on the year along with 21.5 tackles for loss and also 6 passes defended. He also tied for the team lead with 3.5 sacks which says a lot about the anemic Arizona pass rush, though considering how UCLA’s pass rush looked last year, maybe I shouldn’t throw stones from glass houses. Still, Schooler is one of the best linebackers in the nation and the Arizona linebacker corps is one of the stronger units in the conference.

None of that will matter, though, if the defensive line doesn’t improve. Considering the loss of two major cogs from last year in PJ Johnson and Dereck Boles, it will be hard to make the case for that occurring. If there’s good news, it’s that there really isn’t much further for this unit to drop. So, at the very least, we should see something similar to last year.

Bold Prediction

The new theme I’m starting to see with these predictions is that it’s hard for me to make a case in either direction. Part of that truly does have to do with UCLA. Will the Bruins be more improved compared to last year? Or will it be more of the same? Arizona’s offense should be more consistent, barring another injury to Tate, and the defense...will probably be the same as last year. So, any judgement on this game is more based on what UCLA squad shows up.

That’s a lot of hand-wringing, I know, but I think UCLA will improve enough to steal this road game. They’ll certainly be more tested by this point. That’s for certain.

UCLA wins, 38-35.