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Grant Gunnell, defense propel Arizona past UCLA in Pac-12 opener

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arizona-wildcats-ucla-bruins-2020-matchup-preview-pac12-streak-defense-sacks Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

On a night when the Arizona Wildcats were without two of their biggest offensive weapons, they were going to need others to step up in order to begin Pac-12 play on a high note.

Turns out those heroes weren’t just of the offensive variety, as the Wildcat defense did more than its part in aiding a 20-17 win over the UCLA Bruins on Saturday night in front of 38,283 fans at Arizona Stadium.

True freshman quarterback Grant Gunnell looked solid in his first career start, and Gary Brightwell’s 10-yard touchdown run with 10:51 left in the fourth quarter served as the game-winning score. But it was also the play of veteran defenders like Tony Fields II, Colin Schooler and Lorenzo Burns who had the greatest impact in slowing down a UCLA offense that scored 63 points last week in a shocking comeback win at Washington State.

UCLA, which gained 657 yards overall and more than 8.7 per play at WSU, managed only 445 yards and 5.2 per play against the Wildcats. The Bruins had 70 on their final drive but had to settle for a potential game-tying 39-yard field goal, which JJ Molson missed wide right with 34 seconds left.

Arizona iced Molson just before that, with him making that first try.

“Luck of the draw,” said coach Kevin Sumlin, noting he opted not to call a second timeout.

Combined with the 14 points allowed last time out against Texas Tech, Arizona (3-1, 1-0 Pac-12) has given up just 31 points in its last two games. That’s the fewest the Wildcats have yielded in consecutive games since September 2013 when they gave up 26 to UTSA and UNLV.

“I believe it was one of our best all-around—as a full team—game since I’ve been at Arizona,” said Fields, a junior who had 10 tackles, including eight solo takedowns.

Schooler added 13 tackles, six fewer than he had in the first three games, including two for loss.

Called on to start after Khalil Tate was ruled out with an apparent hamstring injury, Gunnell threw for 352 yards on 29-of-44 passing with a 75-yard TD pass to Bam Smith on a wheel route. That score gave Arizona a 13-10 lead with 8:17 left in the third quarter, after UCLA (1-4, 1-1) had extended its 7-6 halftime lead with a 37-yard field goal from Molson.

“He did great,” senior receiver Cedric Peterson said of Gunnell, who was not made available to the media and probably won’t be all season. “He had to step up, he knew what he had to do. Even though it was his first game he made great strides. He worked with the first team pretty much the whole week.”

Gunnell threw 29 times in the first half, with Arizona running just 13 times in the opening 30 minutes as the Wildcats opted to lean on their young passer rather than several rushing options with junior J.J. Taylor out due to an ankle injury.

“What we were trying to do was stay away from negative yardage plays,” Sumlin said. “He was very mature with how he handled things. He managed the game well. Not a lot of miscues.”

Gunnell got Arizona into the red zone three times in the first half but only managed two Lucas Havrisik field goals, of 40 and 41 yards, after he missed his first try from 34 yards out.

UCLA led 7-0 after its first possession, going 85 yards in 12 plays after Arizona threw five times before punting. But the Bruins managed only 100 yards the rest of the first half as the Wildcat defense buckled down. That unit forced two turnovers on downs and also got an interception from Burns, his third of the season and ninth for Arizona.

QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson, who had 564 yards of total offense at WSU, threw for 180 yards with a TD and an interception and ran for 63 yards but had to leave the game late in the third quarter with an apparent left leg injury.

Arizona finished with 451 yards, gaining only 99 on the ground. It was its lowest rushing output since managing 72 in a 42-10 loss at Utah last October, and the 30 carries were their fewest since rushing 26 times against BYU in the 2016 season opener.

Smith was Arizona’s leading rusher, with 35 yards on six carries including runs of 16 and 7 in the fourth quarter.

“He’s a dynamic player,” Sumlin said of Smith, a redshirt freshman who finished with 134 all-purpose yards on 10 touches.

The Wildcats hit the road for their first conference game next Saturday at Colorado, where they have won three straight including the 2017 contest in which Tate ran for an FBS quarterback-record 327 yards.

Sumlin said he’s unsure if Tate, or Taylor, will be available for that game.