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What to watch for in Arizona’s Pac-12 opener against UCLA

arizona-wildcats-ucla-bruins-preview-pac-12-defense-sumlin-kelly-tate-felton-thompson-robinson Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats gave us a little bit of everything during the nonconference portion of their schedule, coming out with a 2-1 record and a path to bowl eligibility depending on how Pac-12 play goes. There are at least four winnable games on the schedule, starting with Saturday night’s visit from the UCLA Bruins to Arizona Stadium.

UCLA (1-3, 1-0 Pac-12) comes in off a massive comeback victory at Washington State, rallying from down 32 points late in the third quarter win win 67-63. That’s only the fourth game the Bruins have won under second-year coach Chip Kelly, with one of the first three being last year’s 31-30 outcome against Arizona in Westwood.

Arizona is 16-25-2 all-time against UCLA, with the Bruins taking six of the last seven. The Wildcats’ only victory in that span was in 2017.

Here’s what to keep an eye out for when Arizona and UCLA clash:

Which defense will show up?

When last we saw the Wildcats, their defense was putting together a performance that few outside of the program—and probably some inside it—figured was possible: holding Texas Tech to 14 points and 411 yards, both season lows for the Red Raiders and the least Arizona had allowed in a game.

It was an amazing effort after Arizona had given up 41 points to NAU and 45 to Hawaii in the first two games. But is it sustainable?

“We hold ourselves to a high standard, and any time we don’t play to that standard we can’t be happy,” senior cornerback Jace Whittaker said. “We can’t be satisfied even when we do meet the standard because now we need to take it to another level.”

Whittaker played last game at spur safety, allowing him to be involved in more aspects of the defense, similar to the role he played in the opener at Hawaii. His only experience at the position prior to that was a single walkthrough at practice, but he said two years ago he spent a lot of time with corner-turned-safety Dane Cruikshank and “soaked in everything he was learning.”

Whittaker was one of a handful of Arizona defenders to play all 80 snaps against Texas Tech, which may end up happening against UCLA as well. The exception could be on the defensive line, where the Wildcats continue to try and rotate in as many big bodies as possible to stay fresh.

Is J.J. good to go?

Arizona ran for 314 yards and three touchdowns against Texas Tech, keeping it on the ground for its final 19 snaps including every one of a 14-play, 99-yard TD drive to clinch the game. But very little of that overall production came from the Wildcats’ top ball carrier, junior J.J. Taylor, who missed almost the entire second half after getting “nicked up” as coach Kevin Sumlin likes to say when he doesn’t want to elaborate on an injury.

Sumlin said Taylor did not practice much during the bye week, so his status for this game is uncertain. Thankfully, Arizona has shown it doesn’t need Taylor in order to be productive on the ground.

Taylor’s 208 yards this season are third-best on the team, behind Khalil Tate and Gary Brightwell, with Brightwell and Bam Smith both averaging more than eight yards per carry.

UCLA has allowed more than seven yards per carry in its past two games, so the opportunity to run will be there for Arizona.

Containing UCLA’s playmakers

UCLA’s shocking 67-63 win at Washington State last weekend saw the Bruins score 50 points in the second half, with 426 of their 657 yards coming after halftime.

Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson had 564 yards of total offense and seven total TDs, averaging more than 20 yards per completion, while Demetric Felton had a 94-yard TD catch and a 100-yard kickoff return score and Kyle Phillips returned a punt 69 yards for a score.

The Bruins had eight pass plays of 20 or more yards and six runs of at least 10 yards. Arizona has given up 11 plays of 30-plus yards this season, which is tied for 109th in FBS.

Taking care of the rock

Arizona has forced 10 turnovers in three games, intercepting eight passes and recovering two fumbles, but against Texas Tech is gave it back three times. Ball security was no doubt a major point of emphasis in practice this week, particularly since UCLA forced six turnovers against WSU including four forced fumbles.

Three of those involved defenders stripping the ball from receivers, with a couple of those helping immensely with the comeback. UCLA scored 29 points off turnovers against WSU.

People watching

Plenty of good seats are still available at Arizona Stadium, and judging by the attendance from the first two home games, most of those will go unsold.

The announced attendance for the Tech game (37,307) was the smallest for a Saturday game in Tucson since 1997. That came after just 40,741 attended the home opener against NAU, the smallest opening crowd since 2003.

However, both games have seen the Zona Zoo student section packed to the gills, and most were still around at the end of the Tech game. That can only help Arizona if this is a close game down the stretch.