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What we learned from Arizona’s win over UCLA

grant-gunnell-quarterback-redshirt-arizona-wildcats-khalil-tate-backup-depth-chart-washington Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Even with Khalil Tate and J.J. Taylor sidelined with injuries, the Arizona Wildcats downed the UCLA Bruins 20-17 on Saturday at Arizona Stadium.

Arizona improves to 3-1 overall and 1-0 in the Pac-12.

Our recap can be found here, Kevin Sumlin’s full postgame comments can be read here, and here are some things we learned:

What the future looks like

For the first time in the Kevin Sumlin era, it was his players—the ones who joined the program when he was the head coach—who led the charge offensively.

It was a promising sight.

True freshman quarterback Grant Gunnell made his first career start and was expectedly inconsistent. He overshot a few fade routes that would have been touchdowns, missed some fairly easy throws across the middle, and got happy feet in the pocket at times, but did an admirable job managing the game by avoiding turnovers and converting key third downs.

Gunnell’s most impressive play was completing a 21-yard, back-shoulder throw to running back Bam Smith on 3rd-and-10 at the UA 5 with under seven minutes to play and a three-point lead.

It did not lead to a score, but it flipped the field and forced UCLA to drive nearly the entire field to get into field-goal range in the final seconds.

It was curious that Arizona had Gunnell throw 44 times (compared to 25 handoffs), but Sumlin attributed that to the Bruins daring them to throw by stacking the box and Gunnell taking what the defense gave him.

“I think this is a great experience,” Sumlin said. “Primetime TV, true freshman starts his first game against a conference opponent, to come out and win in a close game, we got some things to clean up, but obviously he’s got a bright future.”

Smith, a redshirt freshman, was Arizona’s best skilled player, combining for 134 yards (99 receiving, 35 rushing), picking up the slack on a night when J.J. Taylor was out with an injury and Gary Brightwell was “nicked up,” according to Sumlin.

Sumlin is unsure if Tate and Taylor will be able to play next week, so we might get another glimpse at the Gunnell-Smith tandem.

“I have full confidence in Grant. Full,” said linebacker Tony Fields II. “He deals with us in practice everyday and he still somehow, someway makes great plays the way he did tonight.”

The defense overcame a rough start to prove Texas Tech game was no fluke

This game was the defense’s opportunity to prove the mettle it showed against Texas Tech was no fluke.

Early on, it looked like it was. UCLA marched down the field on its first drive, scoring a touchdown after gashing the Wildcats for 85 yards, including 68 on the ground.

Nothing came easy for the Bruins thereon. Arizona was sticky in coverage (seven pass breakups), had a decent pass rush (two sacks) and was fairly stout against the run, holding Joshua Kelly, a very good running back, to 4.7 yards per carry.

It helped that Bruins quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson was inaccurate and UCLA’s receivers made some critical drops, but the Wildcats proved they can make adjustments.

DTR had some big runs early, but was tamed as the game went on after Arizona deployed a spy and some zone coverage.

The Wildcats missed a lot of open-field tackles but were still able to limit chunk plays, with UCLA only having four plays go for 20 or more yards.

Neither Texas Tech nor UCLA are juggernauts, but considering where Arizona was against Hawaii and NAU, its defense has taken obvious steps in the right direction.

Saturday marked the first time Arizona has held a Power-5 under 20 points in consecutive games since 2010.

“Obviously we tackled Tech pretty well, I don’t think we were like that tonight, but I did think...the effort even after the missed tackle from the other guys running to the ball eliminated a lot of big plays,” Sumlin said. “And that’s what the defense is about. You’re gonna miss some. We got to be better tacklers, but all in all I thought the effort from the 10 other guys to get the guy on the ground and not let it be a humongous played was important, and that’s what we have to improve on our defense, and I think we’re doing that.”

Tony Fields II had his best game as a Wildcat

Fields did a little bit of everything in this one, from stopping the run, to pressuring the quarterback, to breaking up passes.

He finished with 10 tackles after recording 14 in the first three games, agreeing it was his best game at Arizona. Sumlin likes the way he and fellow linebackers Colin Schooler and Anthony Pandy are gelling—and competing.

“Against certain sets, we can’t put all three of those guys out there in the field in a covered situation,” Sumlin said. “... And I think they give our team some juice, but they also give each other juice because they know that whoever’s playing good, playing the best, we’re gonna leave those two out there.”

Arizona’s special teams can be a positive difference-maker

Special teams have been a downright disaster at times this season for Arizona, but Saturday was not one of those instances.

Placekicker Lucas Havrisik bounced back from an early 34-yard field goal miss to make 40- and 41-yard field goals. He also boomed all of his kickoffs for touchbacks, preventing UCLA’s potent return game from getting anything going.

The story, though, was punter Matt Aragon, who had five punts for 237 yards, an average of 47.4. Three of his punts were downed inside the 20 and none of them were shanks.

He even booted one for 70 yards. Yeah, it bounced into the end zone for a touchback, but it still resulted in a sizable net gain.

Arizona covered well, allowing just seven punt return yards. So it seemed fitting that the game ended with UCLA missing a 39-yard field goal after Sumlin iced their kicker.

“I wrote down two or three things here, the things that we talked about, how you win close games,” Sumlin said. “We had zero turnovers, right? [Aragon] had five (punts) for 47.4, which we out-punted them. ... And then the big deal was they didn’t get a kickoff return because Lucas (Havrisik) kicked it out every time. And they had two punt returns for 11 yards. They were leading the country. So with the exception of the missed field goal at the beginning of the game, I thought our special teams outperformed theirs and that was a goal coming in this game.”

Penalties are a problem

Even when the Wildcats are playing well they still have very little room for error. Extending their opponents’ drives with penalties or putting themselves in long-yardage situations will be a recipe for disaster most nights.

The Wildcats committed 10 penalties for 74 yards against UCLA, and were lucky it did not cost them a very winnable game since the Bruins are, well, not very good.

Arizona is a player in the Pac-12 South

Utah is still by and large the favorite in the division, but Arizona can claim sole possession of the lead with a win at Colorado next weekend, a team the Wildcats have handled the last three years.

No one expects Arizona to actually win the South, but it at least remains in play after beating UCLA, and that is all you can ask for at this point in the season.

“It feels good to get a win, especially to start conference play, but we have a game on the road next week and based on our past, we don’t really play to our potential on the road, so we’re focused on getting a road win,” Schooler said. “But I loved the way we played tonight.”