Rick Scuteri-US PRESSWIRE
The UCLA Bruins host the Arizona Wildcats in the year's homecoming game. If they don't want to spoil the party, UCLA's defense is going to need their best performance of the season.
Throughout this season, UCLA's defense hasn't been the one making the headlines. They've made a habit of acceptable-but-not-spectacular performances, and they've left most of the praise and criticism to Johnathan Franklin, Brett Hundley and the rest of the offense. That won't cut it on Saturday. Come Saturday, "adequate" defense is likely to be blown out at the line by Ka'Deem Carey, and buried under bombs from Matt Scott. If UCLA's defense can't keep the Arizona Wildcat offense in check, the Bruins don't have much hope of staying in the game.
Arizona is averaging 354 passing yards per game, fourth in the nation. They find plenty of time to run the ball, gaining just under 200 yards per game. They average 39.1 points per game and have put up more than 50 on three occasions. Scott is making his second visit to the Rose Bowl, following up a 2010 appearance where he went 24-for-36 for 319 yards and the Wildcats took the game, 29-21. He has 2,724 yards so far this season, with 20 touchdowns and nine interceptions for a 139.6 rating. He's a threat to run as well, collecting 365 yards and four touchdowns on the ground.
Carey does the heavy lifting in the rushing game, with 961 yards and 12 touchdowns for the season. What the Bruins can do to slow down the Wildcats isn't exactly clear. They've had some success getting to the quarterback, earning their way into the top 10 nationally with 28 total. Anthony Barr leads the team with eight, and Datone Jones has another four. The Wildcats have given up 12 sacks on the season, so while Jones and Barr might get to Scott, they aren't likely to absolutely ruin his day.
I'm not the most brilliant mind when it comes to football strategy, but I've got a feeling that bullet point A1 for the Bruins offense should be "score lots of points." Make it point A2 as well, it's that important. If the defense manages mixed results holding back the Arizona offense it'll be a good day, so a stellar day from Hundley and Franklin is required.
Franklin bounced back from a sub-par performance against Utah with an 164-yard day at Arizona State, and another day like that would go a long way for the Bruins. He's likely to have motivation beyond the need for a win. With 3,711 career rushing yards, he's just 21 away from setting the UCLA record. Gaston Green set that mark between 1984 and 1987, and barring catastrophe Franklin is likely to break that record before the year is out. If the Bruins are lucky, he'll do it Saturday against Arizona.
The Wildcat defense should provide some opportunities for Franklin and the rest of the Bruin offense. They're ranked 110th in total defense, giving up an average of 484 yards per game, including 168 on the ground. That's largely the reason Arizona's fearsome offense has been held to a 5-3 record (2-3 in the Pac-12). Brett Hundley has five touchdowns and one interception in his last two games, a nice turnaround from his two touchdown, four interception day against Cal.
UCLA should be able to find success if they can dominate at the line of scrimmage, something they should be able to do against Arizona's undersized defensive line. If Franklin can break off a few big runs early it should help draw athletic linebackers Marquis Flowers and Thomas Jackson up, leaving space open over the middle for play action passes from Hundley to find Joseph Fauria and Damien Thigpen in space. Involving Shaquelle Evans and testing the Wildcat secondary wouldn't hurt either. Arizona has given up 97 pass plays of 10 or more yards, and another 34 of more than 20. The Bruins have a lot of weapons on offense. If they play disciplined and avoid mistakes, they should have plenty of opportunities against the Wildcats.
No one is going to mistake Arizona, Arizona State or UCLA for Oregon any time soon. But all three have proven themselves to be something like respectable teams, and if UCLA can do to Arizona what they did to ASU it may finally be that they've found their feet and can take a run at the division heavyweights. That would be a good thing, as a win would put them at 4-2 in the Pac-12. To speak of things too soon is to upset delicate balances, so it should just be sufficient to say that the Bruins play USC on November 17, and if they Bruins keep their heads on straight until then the standings might look pretty interesting come gametime.