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What to watch for when Arizona plays UCLA in the Rose Bowl

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

The Arizona Wildcats head to a place where they haven’t won in a decade while also riding the worst losing streak in program history. Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?

Arizona is on a nine-game skid going into Saturday night’s game against the UCLA Bruins at the Rose Bowl, where the Wildcats last won in 2010. The game is set for a 6 p.m. MST kickoff and will be shown on Fox.

Here’s what to be watching for when the UA (0-2) and UCLA (1-2) tangle in Pasadena:

The thick blue line

The line of scrimmage is always important, but in this game it’s absolutely critical, since this matchup pairs the team that has allowed the most sacks in the Pac-12 against the one that’s registered the most in the league.

Arizona has allowed nine sacks in two games, including five at Washington last week, while UCLA has sacked 10 opposing quarterbacks in its three games.

The offensive line was supposed to be a strength for Arizona this year, considering the experience it brought back, but so far the alignment that’s been used hasn’t lived up to expectations. Don’t look for any major changes, though, coach Kevin Sumlin said on Monday.

“Last year everybody was on us about moving guys around every week,” Sumlin said. “Now, we’ve got to fix the problem. It’s not the best five individual players it’s the best five that play together, that communicate. Joe Tiller was a line coach, and he used to say you’re not looking for five pennies you’re looking for a nickel.”

Just as important for Arizona’s offense, and quarterback Grant Gunnell’s ability to produce in the passing game, is having the receivers get open. So far that hasn’t happened much, and Sumlin expects opponents to stay in man-to-man defense until the Wildcats can create space down the field.

The field position battle

Where a possession starts often has a big impact on where it ends, and it’s been a hidden reason why Arizona has put itself in a big hole in both games so far this season.

In the opener against USC the Wildcats’ starting field position was an average of 14 yards worse than the Trojans, and at Washington they were minus-15. This same trend existed most of last year, with the UA only having a positive field position edge once in 2019.

This disadvantage has come from a combination of poor punting, the occasional kickoff that goes out of bounds, inefficient punt and kick returns (and big ones for the opponents) and turnovers.

At Washington the Wildcats never started a drive beyond their own 29-yard line, and that one came after the Huskies missed a 46-yard field goal attempt when up 37-0. UW, on the other hand, started twice in UA territory (thanks to a fumble recovery and a turnover on downs) but on drives that began after kickoffs and punts it had four instances where it started at its own 35 or better.

Safety dance

Allowing 39 points per game and 6.64 yards per play doesn’t really speak to defensive improvement, but there have been some positive developments from that side of the ball so far. The interior run defense has been stellar, while walk-on linebacker Rourke Freeburg has been a godsend with his aggressive play in space.

But safety? That’s been a big issue for the Wildcats, and it’s unlikely to get much better based on the players available.

Redshirt junior Rhedi Short and sophomore Jaxen Turner are first and tied for second, respectively, in tackles through two games. That’s not usually a good sign since those players are often the last line of defense.

Turner has performed well, rebounding from an injury that shut him down halfway through last season, and Short has played admirably considering he had never appeared in a game in his first three years in the program. But if Arizona had more options at that position it’s unlikely Short would be seeing as much action as he has, let alone start.

And therein lies the problem. The UA only has four scholarship safeties on the roster, and one of them—junior Christian Young—just opted out for the remainder of 2020 due to a nagging ankle injury. The most experienced senior, redshirt senior Jarrius Wallace, was not available at Washington.

Capitalizing on mistakes

UCLA has turned it over seven times in three games, leading to 49 points for its opponents. If not for those giveaways it might have won at Oregon last week.

Arizona has yet to force a turnover in 2020, having failed to do so in three straight games and five of the last seven while giving it away seven times in that span. The two turnovers the Wildcats have committed this season have led to quick scores for their foes.

The Wildcats’ 30 forced turnovers since the beginning of 2018 are tied for fifth fewest in the country.

Say no to the hole

During its nine-game losing streak Arizona has had the lead for only 37 minutes and 27 seconds, never holding better than a four-point edge. And only once during the skid have the Wildcats scored first, taking a 3-0 lead at Stanford that lasted fewer than four minutes.

Not scoring first is one thing, but for the UA is bigger issue is falling behind multiple scores before getting on the board.

Last week the Wildcats were down 37-0 after three quarters, marking the eighth time in 26 games under Sumlin they’ve trailed by 10 or more points before scoring. Arizona’s streak has also seen it go scoreless in the first half on three occasions.