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What to watch for when Arizona hosts UCLA on Family Weekend

arizona-wildcats-ucla-bruins-preview-chip-kelly-jedd-fisch-dorian-thompson-robinson-jordan-mccloud Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats are back in action on Saturday night, hosting the UCLA Bruins in their Pac-12 home opener. Coach Jedd Fisch said Thursday that more than 40,000 tickets had been distributed for the game, which is part of Family Weekend activities on campus and would make it the largest home crowd of the season.

The UA (0-4, 0-1 Pac-12) has won two in a row at home over the Bruins (3-2, 1-1) but is also riding a 16-game losing streak.

Here’s what to watch for the the Wildcats take on the Bruins on Saturday night:

Jordan McCloud’s second act

McCloud started Arizona’s last game at Oregon, and it’s fair to say the results were not great. The South Florida transfer had 297 yards of total offense and threw a touchdown pass but also five interceptions, one off the single-game school record.

As the third different QB to start for the Wildcats this season, McCloud went into the Oregon game having not gotten many first-team practice reps before then and it showed. There have been nearly two weeks worth of workouts since then, during which Fisch said McCloud has taken “probably close to a couple hundred reps” with the first-team offense.

“When he gets all those reps hopefully he’ll feel more comfortable with throwing to those guys, the reads, running the offense and doing certain things that I think will enable us to take one more step forward in what hopefully be a week-by-week step forward in this process,” Fisch said.

McCloud, who only threw 10 interceptions in 418 pass attempts at South Florida, acknowledged Tuesday he has to avoid trying to play “hero ball” and trust the system and his teammates.

“It’s three of (the interceptions) that I should have just threw the ball away, being able to live for the next down and that’s okay,” McCloud said. “Obviously you don’t want to, but sometimes it’s okay if you get sacked. It’s okay to throw the ball away, instead of trying to make the big play all the time. The team trusted me and I trusted them and that gives me great confidence that they have trust in me, on and off the field. I love them on and off the field. When guys can rally like that together when things aren’t going well that’s great.”

Familiar aggression

UCLA only has nine sacks in five games but it’s not for a lack of trying. The Bruins also have been credited by Pro Football Focus with 17 quarterback hits and 68 hurries, and all that pressure has led to seven takeaways.

“They’re an extremely aggressive bunch,” Fisch said. “They really try to create turnovers. They’re going to give you all sorts of different looks. It is a great challenge for a quarterback to have to defend all the different looks, all the different coverage schemes and pressures.”

While not exactly like what Don Brown does with Arizona’s defense, there are enough similarities with the approach that the UA spent a lot of time in practice the past two weeks using its own defense against the first-team offense rather than a scout group tasked with mimicking the opponent’s scheme.

“In the percentage of pressures and stuff like that, it’s a good comparison,” offensive coordinator Brennan Carroll said. “They have their own wrinkles.”

Arizona’s offensive line is coming off its best performance, allowing only one sack to Oregon after giving up 10 in the first three games, while paving the way for a season-best 202 rushing yards.

That UCLA run game and its mobile QB

The Bruins average 44.6 carries per game, tops in the Pac-12 and tied for 17th-most in FBS. They’ve gained at least 200 yards on the ground in four of five contests and have three players with 200-plus rushing yards this season.

That includes quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, who has run for 214 yards and two TDs while throwing for 1,154 yards and 10 TDs. DTR, as he’s known, was recruited to UCLA by Fisch when he was the offensive coordinator there in 2017. Fisch was also looking at him the year before when he was at Michigan.

“I always tell the story that I went to watch him at Bishop Gorman (High School) a couple of times and he was the best wide receiver on the field, and he was also the second quarterback, and then as soon as he was done playing wide receiver, when they took a big lead, he then went in and played quarterback,” Fisch said. “Tate Martell is a starting quarterback at that time. And then the next year he became the starting quarterback for Gorman, so he’s got ability to do it with his feet, ability to do it with his arm, and overall, really impressive.”

Arizona has allowed 124 rushing yards to opposing QBs so far this season, though none of those are considered as mobile as DTR. The Wildcats have allowed on running back to top 100 yards, as San Diego State’s Greg Bell had 125 yards and a TD on 17 carries, and rank second-to-last in the Pac-12 in run defense.

Tight end involvement

Another big part of UCLA’s offense is tight end Greg Dulcich, who has 16 catches for 313 yards and a TD. He caught nine passes for 136 yards in last week’s home loss to ASU, proving almost unguardable.

“I think he’s an extreme challenge,” Fisch said. “They’ve done a great job developing him over the years. Each year he’s gotten better, more explosive. He’s going to catch the ball deep down the field, he’s gonna catch the ball and catch and run. One thing that looks to me is, he’s very hard to tackle. A lot of times the first guy doesn’t tackle him. So I think we have to make sure we get him down, and then we’re gonna have some great challenges on different ways to defend him.”

Dulcich had more catches last week than Arizona’s tight ends have had all season. Wildcat QBs have only targeted TEs 11 times, resulting in seven receptions for 81 yards.

“We’re a tight end driven offense and we just haven’t gotten that going just yet,” Fisch said. “I’d like to see more balls going their way. I would hope we were closer to, probably five to eight targets a game would be much more of what we would be looking for there. I think there were some plays over the course of the season where the tight end maybe was the primary (receiver), we didn’t get it to him or we missed it or we didn’t read it right or whatever ... maybe pressure caused us to leave the pocket early. Obviously, a lot of targets have gotten to Stanley (Berryhill) in the slot. But we need to do a better job as we continue on getting the ball to the tight end.”

Earning the right to win

When Arizona kicks off on Saturday night it will either be in sole possession of the longest active losing streak in FBS or merely be second. That’s because Massachusetts, which has also dropped 16 in a row, hosts Connecticut—which has lost 12 in a row but has come close the last two weeks—earlier in the day.

Either way, it’s not a great look for the UA to be at or near the top of such an ominous list. Then again, as Fisch has noted, Arizona has yet to “earn the right to win” this season.

“The wins are gonna come, they always do,” he said. “And it’s just a matter of when they come. And if we earn the right to win we’ll win. That means we have to play good on all three phases, that means that we have to not turn the ball over excessively, we have to not have penalties that can possibly change an outcome of a game. We have to be able to play for 60 minutes.

Avoiding a big deficit would certainly help. Arizona has trailed 14-0, 21-0 and 10-0 against its three FBS opponents, before rallying to get within one score in two of those games.

“You don’t win the game in the first second or third quarter you lit it at the end but you can lose the game in the first quarter,” he said. “And that’s what we have to really do everything we can not to do. We talk we talk about process. We talk about what needs to get done for us to get better. And if we got better every day, how the results usually take care of itself. And then if you get better and don’t look at the scoreboard, then all of a sudden, the result will start coming, None of us want to be in a situation where we’ve lost four games in a row as a team, this team, but we need to find a way to turn that over by just playing better football throughout the whole game. And then really play better on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday in order to be able to be better on Saturday.”