It was another hard-fought, competitive game for the Arizona Wildcats on Saturday night. However, it didn’t end the way the ‘Cats wanted, falling 31-30 to UCLA.
There were a lot of good things to build upon for UA and it was an immensley improved performance after the loss to Utah. Mistakes, unfortunately, doomed the ‘Cats.
Let’s take a look at what went right and what didn’t.
Up: The offensive line
For as much grief as the offensive line has gotten throughout the season, it had one of its best outings of the year. And it was without the most experienced player in senior left tackle Layth Friekh.
The big guys up front dominated the line of scrimmage all game. Quarterback Rhett Rodriguez had plenty of time all game to make his reads and throws. The running backs were also the beneficiaries of the line’s play.
The line was able to open lanes all night and even get to the next level to engage the linebackers and defensive backs.
The line also didn’t give up a sack and only gave up one tackle for a loss all night. The line took a nice step forward in its progression Saturday night.
These were killers for Arizona. The ‘Cats turned the ball over three times, but two of those were absolute killers.
The first came when Rodriguez threw his first interception of the season. On Arizona’s second drive of the game, the ‘Cats were marching down the field nicely. With the ball deep in Bruin territory, Rodriguez made a huge mistake. Throwing off his back foot with pressure in his face, Rodriguez chucked a floater to the end zone in the vicinity of Tony Ellison. It was picked off by Quentin Lake of UCLA.
It was a very uncharacteristic play for Rodriguez, who is known for his smart play. Also a little understandable, since it came in the second drive of his first start ... on the road ... on national television.
The second turnover I will discuss was less understandable ... and it was worst mistake of the night. During UA’s second drive of the second quarter, J.J. Taylor ripped off a fantastic run ... until the end. While Taylor was running down the sideline, UCLA cornerback Darnay Holmes caught up to the UA running back. Once he caught up to Taylor, he punched the ball out and fell on it in the end zone, effectively taking sure points off the board for Arizona. Taylor is experienced enough to know that if you think you feel a defender behind you, put both hands on the ball. Taylor did a lot of good Saturday night, but the uncharacteristic mistake by Taylor hurt in a big way.
In both instances, Arizona would’ve put points on the board. Instead, the opposite happened and it cost the ‘Cats a win.
Up: The defensive front
It was the best performance for the defensive line and linebackers all year. The group was able to get consistent pressure and penetration. So much so that the defense finished with a season-best 12 tackles for loss and four sacks. There were a couple of inconsistencies but overall the defensive front seven held up their end of the bargain.
Down: The secondary
The guys behind the line/linebackers did not hold up their end. There were good plays made, make no mistake. But there were too many instances where there weren’t. The problem is two-fold.
First off, there should be no real reason why the safeties didn’t play better since all of the guys have plenty of game experience. Too often, UCLA receivers were able to catch the ball with a 5-7 yard bubble around them in the middle of the field. That is unacceptable for an experienced safety group.
On the other hand, Arizona’s best and most-experienced cornerbacks were out. In their place, true freshmen McKenzie Barnes and Christian Young made their first career starts, on the road, and at night on national TV. Throw in redshirt freshman Azizi Hearn and the lack of experience is evident. In no way do I hold them fully accountable for the poor play. They will learn and they will get better.
Up: Special Teams
Jeremy Springer’s group also had it’s best, and most complete, performance of the season. Overall the return game was solid, nothing special, but solid.
Punting did its job effectively. Dylan Klumph was able to flip the field on all but one punt. Even Jake Glatting got in on the action, pinning the Bruins at their 4-yard line on his only punt of the game.
Placekicking took a huge step forward Saturday as well. Josh Pollack knocked all three of his attempts through the uprights, something that hasn’t been easy for UA this year.
Down: Crucial second half penalties
Most of Arizona’s penalties didn’t really hurt the ‘Cats too bad. All penalties are bad but two in particular came in very critical situations for UA. And both came in the second half.
In Arizona’s third possession of the second half, after Gary Brigthwell’s 72-yard run to start it, the ‘Cats were driving and had a ton of momentum. After a solid 4-yard run by Taylor, Brightwell seemed to have gotten the first down with a 6-yard run. But it was called back by a drive-killing holding call by center Josh McCauley. After that Rodriguez threw two incompletions and Arizona had to settle for a field goal.
The second one was a head-scratcher. On the last drive of the game, on a third and long, safety Scottie Young was called for defensive holding on UCLA running back Joshua Kelley. Not a big deal right? Wrong.
Defensive tackle Dereck Boles was all in the face of UCLA quarterback Wilton Speight, who overthrew Kelly ... except that Young was holding him. This was an egregious error. The ball would’ve been overthrown regardless. Young wasn’t beat by Kelley and all he had to do was turn around and UCLA would’ve been forced to punt. Instead, the drive continued and UCLA ran out the clock.