Arizona (3-4, 2-2 Pac-12) heads to Pasadena with major uncertainty that comes from a change at quarterback, with sophomore Rhett Rodriguez starting for injured junior Khalil Tate. That’s just one of the key storylines to a game that essentially will dictate whether the Wildcats can make a bowl game this winter.
New kid on the (shotgun) block
RhettRod is no longer just the son of fired head coach Rich Rodriguez, he’s also Arizona’s first Tucson-area starting quarterback since Rincon’s Billy Prickett in 1991. Prickett’s first start was at UCLA, as well, a 54-14 loss midway through what ended up being a lost 4-7 season.
Tate, Arizona’s starter the previous 15 games, needs time for his injured left ankle to heal. Coach Kevin Sumlin opted for Rodriguez, who looked poised during his extended playing time last week at Utah, over true freshman Jamarye Joiner.
It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Joiner still play, particularly since his skill set as a dual-threat passer is so different from RhettRod’s more pro-style approach. Anything Arizona can do to get its struggling offense moving is appreciated.
Will the offensive line do its job?
The only two games this season in which Arizona has been able to run the ball effectively, and not have the pocket constantly collapse on its quarterback, were against Southern Utah and Oregon State. Not coincidentally, those were the only two games in which senior Layth Friekh was available and healthy.
The left tackle has been dealing with ankle injuries himself, ones that have forced him out of the Wildcats’ last three games. In those contests Arizona has averaged just 2.88 rushing yards per carry and 98 yards per game.
Arizona averaged 8.07 yards per carry against Southern Utah and Oregon State.
Whether Friekh can go—and stay in the game—will dictate how Arizona’s line fares. His absence hasn’t been handled well, regardless of how the Wildcats reshuffle their blockers.
Wrap it up
Tackling is one of the most fundamental parts of football, yet for Arizona it has seemed like a foreign concept. The number of missed tackles the Wildcats have this season is embarrassing, no more so than against Utah when numerous plays that could have resulted in stops behind the line or for short gains turned into sizable chunks of yardage.
Is this a product of poor technique in practice, or are the Wildcats even hitting each other during the week? Quite often it looks like an Arizona player is in the right position to make the tackle but when it comes to the point of contact all things go bad.
UCLA lost its first five games this season under first-year coach Chip Kelly, going through an even more extreme version than Arizona of the chaos that comes from a regime change. But the Bruins appear to have turned a corner, first seen in a 31-24 home loss to Washington and then last week’s convincing 37-7 win at California.
The same Cal team Arizona needed two defensive scores to beat 24-17 at home the week before.
The combination of UCLA breaking through and Arizona looking horrible in its 42-10 loss at Utah on Friday caused the point spread to massively shift. It first opened with the Wildcats as a 1-point favorite only to quickly flip, with UCLA currently favored by 9.5.
Flustering the freshman
The Bruins have a true freshman, Dorian Thompson-Robinson, at quarterback. His overall numbers haven’t been stellar but they’re also not horrible, and they’re getting better.
Against Cal, DTR was 13 of 15 for 141 yards, that coming after throwing for 272 yards and two touchdowns on 27-of-38 passing against Washington. He’s been sacked 16 times this season but only twice in the previous two games.
Arizona has just 11 sacks on defense, which has enabled opponents to complete 64.3 percent of their passes (the highest rate in the Pac-12). The Wildcats must find a way to fluster DTR and make him look like a freshman.