Going into the season, it was obvious that the Arizona Wildcats would need a fast start for any hope of reaching a bowl game. After a crippling close loss to Hawaii, those dreams seemed in deep trouble, if not doomed.
Thanks to a scrappy three victories since then, those dreams are back on track.
Beating a volatile UCLA team at home was absolutely necessary for any measure of success this season. Thanks to a vast cast of Wildcats, that’s now happened. It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, as it was a very close game. Nevertheless, a win is a win, and Arizona is now 3-1 overall and 1-0 in the Pac-12.
Here are three ups and three downs from the game.
Up: GRANT GUNNELL, QUARTERBACK OF THE FUTURE
There will be no overreactions here. As amazing as it was to watch Gunnell win his first game as a true freshman and look like a player with a bright future, we have to be honest.
Gunnell played like a freshman, pairing laser-like throws with damning mistakes, and this game might not have been close if a few inaccurate throws are thrown better.
Do I care? No. Gunnell is a true freshman who almost nobody saw starting until right before the game, and only did due to injury. On top of that, he was without his best weapon, with J.J. Taylor out with injury as well. Despite those mistakes, he still went 29-for-44 for 352 yards and a touchdown. Nobody would confuse him with Khalil Tate, but Gunnell at least looked a little slippery the few teams he had to run.
Again, Gunnell has a long way to go, and any Saturday where Tate is healthy will probably result in Gunnell on the bench. Nevertheless, he’s 1-0 as a true freshman, and looks like someone Kevin Sumlin can mold into one of the better quarterback in the Pac-12.
Down: General missed opportunities
This category is just for the general stuff that led to this being a close game. I just went over Gunnell’s freshman mistakes, but those were only part of the equation.
The biggest part of that equation, to me, was the failure to grab momentum. Lucas Havrisik missed a field goal on Arizona’s first real drive, and as a result UCLA led for the entire first half as it only needed one touchdown to keep UA at arm’s length. Despite that great performance by the defense, Gunnell clearly was still learning early, and it nearly cost UA.
The second half went better for the offense, but it still was a near disaster. After each of Arizona’s TD drives, one of which was one play and the other of which was 10 plays, Arizona had long drives where the ‘Cats could have stepped on UCLA’s neck. Instead both drives ended with punts. UCLA’s drives after those punts were a touchdown and the game-ending drive that could have sent the game to overtime.
I really feel that Arizona needs to learn how to grab the game when it has the chance if the Wildcats are to be successful this season. They survived this game, but they won’t survive against most of the Pac-12 by skirting by.
Up: Another solid defensive performance
After Arizona’s defense stepped up in a major way for coordinator Marcel Yates against Texas Tech, the question was whether they could stop an offense who had just scored 67 points. The answer: a firm yes.
Arizona’s defense hasn’t been dominant by any stretch, but it has gone from a crippling weakness to a bit of an asset. UCLA still managed 5.2 yards/play against the ‘Cats, but thanks to a similar bout of mistakes that Arizona helped create, Arizona was able to hold the Bruins to 17 points.
If there’s an MVP award for this game, I feel like it would go to cornerback Lorenzo Burns. Burns scored the only takeaway of the game, intercepting Dorian Thompson-Robinson early in the game. That play might have kept UCLA from running out ahead and as a direct result let Arizona survive the game. The pass defense got a bit lucky with a few Bruins dropped passes, but they also looked great in general.
Two great defensive performances in a row against solid offenses is exactly what the doctor ordered for Arizona. Do they have more in them? The answer seems to be another firm yes.
The Wildcats have been one of the most penalized teams in the nation this season, and it didn’t get any better on Saturday, despite the coaching staff’s emphasis on better discipline.
Against the Bruins, Arizona was penalized 10 times for a total of 74 yards. If there’s a silver lining in that ugly stat, it’s that Arizona’s penalties were often five-yarders, and on offense, meaning they didn’t gift UCLA too many yards. Nevertheless, 10 penalties in any game is borderline inexcusable. It has been a major problem for a long time now though, and that continues to be a glaring flaw.
It takes a lot of penalties to truly change a game from a win to loss. Unfortunately, Arizona has played a lot of close games thus far, and those massive penalty bills will come due someday unless they’re seriously mitigated.
Up: Running back depth
This one is not a surprise at all either, but seeing it on display against UCLA was very encouraging. Despite a bad night on the ground, Arizona still showed that they have athletes besides J.J. Taylor in the backfield.
Gary Brightwell, a longtime backup, was nicked up, going for 4.7 yards/carry on an admittedly small sample size of seven carries, though he did score the winning touchdown.
Youngster Bam Smith has firmly established himself as one of the best skill players, combining rushing 35 yards with 99 receiving yards, including a 75-yard receiving touchdown in which almost no Bruin defenders got within 20 yards of him.
Along with Brightwell and Smith, Nathan Tilford, Michael Wiley and receiver Brian Casteel got a few jet sweeps, with only Tilford contributing meaningful yards (33 of them). Grant Gunnell also had six carries including sacks, and he finished with exactly zero yards. Without their best running back though, Arizona got four running backs involved on a night where they focused on the passing game, and three looked good-to-great. That’s a win.
Down: Uninspiring running game
It was reassuring to see all those running backs get involved, and it was great to see Smith rip off that 75-yard touchdown on a pass. Other than that and Brightwell’s game-winning TD, though...there was almost no electricity on the ground.
The team finished with 99 rushing yards. With 30 carries, that averages to 3.3 yards/carry which usually does not result in a win, especially with a true freshman starting his first game at quarterback. Now, that’s not totally fair, as Sumlin and offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone were clearly very excited to finally have a quarterback who matches their pass-happy system more, and Gunnell delivered. 3.3 yard/carry though, for THIS running back corps, is brutal.
I wouldn’t count on this storyline to continue long, especially if either Tate or Taylor return soon. This running attack is simply too talented. Nevertheless, they could’ve really helped the team against UCLA, and they’ll need that fiery A game to reappear in the eight remaining games.