This one’s going to sting.
As had been the case almost every game this season, the Arizona Wildcats fell behind early only to suddenly come alive in the second half and have a chance to win. And unlike one-score losses to BYU and USC, Arizona actually did lead on two separate occasions.
For all of two minutes and 51 seconds, with UCLA quickly coming back with long touchdown drives after Arizona went up 20-17 late in the third quarter and 27-24 early in the fourth.
In the end, though, Arizona (3-5, 2-3 Pac-12) fell 31-30 at UCLA (2-5, 2-2) because its defense couldn’t make a stop when it needed it most. And because of that, the Wildcats have to win three of their last four to avoid missing out on a bowl game for the second time in three years.
How did this all happen, and what does it mean? Here’s what we learned from Arizona’s very painful one-point loss at the Rose Bowl, where it hasn’t won since 2010.
A good run game makes anything possible
The tandem of sophomores JJ Taylor and Gary Brightwell combined for 275 yards on 34 carries, with Taylor going for 154 yards and a touchdown—as well as an unforgiveable fumble on a long run in the first half—while Brightwell had 121 yards for his second 100-yard performance of the season.
All told, Arizona ran for 289 yards, averaging 7.6 yards per carry, after gaining just 294 yards and 2.9 yards per carry in the previous three games combined. And this happened without senior left tackle Layth Friekh, out with ankle injuries.
Even without Taylor’s 55-yard run, which would have been more had he not allowed a UCLA defender to chase him down and pop the ball out, and a 72-yard scamper from Brightwell, Arizona averaged 4.5 yards. That’s pretty decent and should be enough to win.
And historically it has been. The last time Arizona lost when rushing for as much as it did Saturday was in 2016, and since 2012 the Wildcats were 35-11 when gaining at least 200 yards on the ground.
Kevin Sumlin is now 42-2 as a head coach when his team runs for 200 or more yards. Ironically, the other loss was Texas A&M’s 2017 opener at UCLA.
The defensive line is Arizona’s most-improved position group since the opener
Arizona allowed 460 yards, this sixth time in eight games the Wildcats have yielded at least 450 yards on defense, and UCLA’s 307 passing yards were the second-most allowed this season.
Yet they also recorded season highs in tackles for loss (12) and sacks (four), the TFL count Arizona’s most in a game since having 15 in the 2014 Territorial Cup win.
That’s because the defensive line had arguably its best game of the season, finally starting to look like a unit that was expected to be much better than in 2017.
Sure, sophomore linebacker Colin Schooler was once again Mr. I Am Everywhere, leading the team with 10 tackles and contributing a sack, three TFL and a pass breakup. But junior Dereck Boles, JB Brown, Finton Connolly, Jalen Harris and PJ Johnson combined for 16 tackles (six for loss) with three sacks and a forced fumble (by Boles).
That front’s play, particularly in the first half when Arizona couldn’t move the ball to save its life, made it so the Wildcats had a chance to get back into it. They’ve collectively come a long way from the 28-23 loss to BYU on Sept. 1 when eight tackles and zero sacks or TFLs.
Third down remains the down of which we won’t speak
All of that stuff I just wrote about how good the D-line looked and has improved? That doesn’t apply to third down. In fact, everything about how Arizona performs on that down continues to be horrid and the main reason why the Wildcats aren’t going to be bowling in December.
UCLA was 8 of 18 on third downs, a 44.4 percent conversion rate. The Bruins were the sixth team this season to convert at least 40 percent of their third downs, and overall Arizona’s third-down defense has yielded first downs 57 times (43.5 percent).
That 8-of-18 rate is even worse when you consider UCLA went three- or four-and-out on six of its 15 drives. On the nine other possessions the Bruins were 8 of 12 on third down (and 1 of 2 on fourth) and scored five times.
Their last drive typified Arizona’s play all season on third down. Needing to make a stop to get the ball back, the Wildcats forced a 3rd-and-3 … and when everyone collapsed on the running back on a zone read, non-nimble UCLA quarterback Wilton Speight kept for a 5-yard gain. Then they forced a 3rd-and-1, with Boles bum-rushing up the middle to force a throwaway … but safety Scottie Young was called for defensive holding. And then they had the Bruins with a 3rd-and-6 … and 6-foot-4, 235-pound tight end Caleb Wilson managed to find a huge hole in the zone for a catch and a game-clinching 17-yard gain.
On offense, Arizona was 7 of 15 for its third-best conversion rate (46.7 percent) of the season. Yet on three of its seven red-zone possessions it couldn’t convert on third downs on eight, six and four and had to settle for field goals.
Arizona has scored on 78.6 percent of its red-zone possessions this season but has found the end zone just 53.6 percent of the time when driving inside the opponents’ 20-yard line.