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Grading Arizona football’s performance vs. UCLA

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Pretty good way to round out the first quarter of the season

arizona-wildcats-offensive-line-sumlin-2020-laie-mccauley-congel-fears-morgan-depth-experience Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Wildcats are on a three-game win streak, advancing to 1-0 in Pac-12 play and winning two games that inspire some hope in Tucson after the shaky start to the season.

This was a very good game by both sides of the ball given the injury situation, and now we’ll take a deeper look at all three phases of the game.

Quarterback: A-

Grant Gunnell’s first career start at Arizona was pretty solid, and it gives the program some hope for the future.

He threw for an impressive 352 yards, completing 29 of his 44 attempts, although the numbers are a bit inflated as the quick pitch jets counted as passing yards. Nonetheless, there were no turnovers, no risky throws, just smart football.

Sure, there were some overthrows, particularly two in the end zone, and a couple of intermediate throws that were off, but all-in-all this was a very sound game for Gunnell in his Pac-12 debut.

With more reps as first-team quarterback, this is a situation you’d feel good about to get to bowl eligibility, and even better about the future of the program. When Khalil Tate is a full-go, things will get interesting for this coaching staff.

Running backs: C+

The offense could not establish the run game, partially due to the pass-heavy start, as well as UCLA’s decision to load the box and force Gunnell to throw.

Darrius Smith led all backs with 35 yards on six carries, which isn’t a bad average, but considering the long runs baked into that and Arizona just wasn’t able to get anything consistent, particularly up the middle.

Taking over the starting role for an injured J.J. Taylor was Gary Brightwell, who ended the day with seven carries for 33 yards, including the go-ahead touchdown run in the fourth quarter.

The former four-star recruit Nathan Tilford opened up with a strong 28-yarder, and finished with three carries and 33 yards.

The running backs value didn’t come from the ground, but from Smith’s ability as a wide receiver, who hauled in five catches for 99 yards a touchdown.

Smith is a really nice back for this offense, and should continue to be a focal point. He has proved to be extremely efficient on his minimal carries, averaging just under eight yards a carry on 23 touches and just over 19 yards per reception, hauling in eight catches.

Wide receivers: B

The receivers did a good job of making it easy for Gunnell to make plays. Arizona ended with seven receivers catching a pass, with five tallying 30 yards or more, which is good for Gunnell to have a variety of options.

Cedric Peterson, Jamarye Joiner and Drew Dixon did their jobs, finding openings in the short-intermediate passing game for Gunnell to throw to. Tayvian Cunningham continues to have his plays designed in the flats for him to giddy up the field.

Brian Casteel was very impressive. A bulk of his touches were jet sweeps, which counted as receiving yards due to the forward toss, but he had flashed some good speed and running ability. If Arizona continues to incorporate the jet I like Casteel owning that role.

My main gripe with the group was with Stanley Berryhill III, who left a good amount of yardage and a first down on the field as he decided to bounce outside rather than cutting up-field.

Overall, it was a balanced showing for receivers, notching 23 catches for 219 yards.

Offensive line: C+

I wasn’t a huge fan of the offense line. They didn’t get much push up the middle and failed to get the run game going. Gunnell had himself a fair amount of time for the most part, but there were definitely some stretches where the pocket was dirty and if Gunnell didn’t get some balls out quickly he would have taken a few more sacks.

Defensive line: B-

It was a rough start for this group but over the course of he game I was very pleased with the pressure and penetration. I thought their pass rush was far better than their run stopping abilities, which was a pleasant surprise.

Dorian Thompson-Robinson was torching Arizona on the group early, and Joshua Kelley had himself a nice day. The edge was a problem for Arizona to contain, and I’m not sure why UCLA didn’t attack the outsides more, but nonetheless I’ll take this performance.

I love having true freshman Kyon Barrs line up at nose guard, and he’s going to be a very good player at Arizona. Trevon Mason continues to thrive as well, which is terrific considering his late arrival to Tucson.

Linebackers: A+

Arizona’s linebackers had themselves a day. All three ended at the top of the tackle ranks, with Colin Schooler, Tony Fields and Anthony Pandy combining for 30 tackles.

Schooler and Fields were fitting gaps perfectly and causing havoc on the inside, Anthony Pandy was coming in off the edge to generate pressure all night.

These three guys were everywhere.

Corners: B+

Lorenzo Burns gave Arizona some good momentum after snagging his third pick of the year. He’s holding his ground far better than I expected him to, especially with all of the raw talent behind him.

Christian Roland-Wallace did not have any freshman-like he had in the first few games, and the hope is that he continues to maintain a prominent role in the rotation.

Jace Whittaker surrendered a few plays, including UCLA’s lone passing touchdown, but when the longest passing play is only 25 yards, that’s a good night for the corners.

Safeties: A

I thought the safeties played a phenomenal game. Nothing got behind them, there was no blown coverage and the group was coming to make hits and knock the ball out of the receivers hands to force incompletions during some big drives.

Scottie Young Jr. was hitting, Christian Young was hitting, Tristan Cooper was hitting. That was a good night for the group.

Special Teams: B+

Matt Aragon averaged 47 yards a punt, largely due to a 70-yarder inflating the average, but there was good improvement in that department.

No kick returns for either team seems to be the nature of the new touchback rule, and Lucas Havrisik’s two field goals were critical for Arizona.

Coaching: A

We all might have our frustrations with the coordinators at times, but this was a great game for both of them.

On offense, I love Noel Mazzone opening the game with two jet sweeps and getting that motion in early and often, switching it up mid game and coming back to use the motion man. He made it simple for Gunnell, played to his strengths and let him get rolling with some quick game.

Mazzone schemed it up nicely. The run game wasn’t working and didn’t really try to force anything, ending with just 23 rushes for the backs. It would have been nice to get more of a balanced play call to start the game but it’s something I can live with.

A questionable run play on 3rd and goal backed up on the 20 yard line after a Josh McCauley hold that would have likely ended the drive with touchdown, and a few situations where he was second and 10 in plus territory and opted for a long ball, putting the offense in a third and 10 situation.

Marcel Yates, credit to you. We thought Texas Tech was kind of a fluke, but he’s come out with two great game plans in back-to-back games that limited two Power Five teams 14 and 17 points.

Now, it’s going to be a different situation when playing on the road and against some better quality quarterbacks, but this was a game that could have easily gotten out of hand after UCLA marched down on their first drive and could have kept gashing Arizona.