Unless Arizona wins its final three games and gets invited to a bowl, Saturday will mark the final time this season the Wildcats play away from home.
And though the program has never played in the actual Rose Bowl Game, Saturday’s trip to Pasadena to face No. 9 UCLA might as well be treated like a postseason contest since it may be the last time the UA ever sets foot in what coach Jedd Fisch calls “one of the meccas of college football.”
Here’s what to look for when Arizona (3-6, 1-5 Pac-12) takes on UCLA (8-1, 5-1):
Rose Bowl sendoff?
With UCLA leaving for the Big Ten in 2024, this is Arizona’s last scheduled trip to face the last college that Fisch coached at prior to coming to Tucson. In 2017 he was offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for the Bruins under Jim Mora, who was fired with one game left in the regular season and replaced by Fisch on an interim basis.
Fisch has never lost in the Rose Bowl, as UCLA went 6-0 at home that season including his debut in charge, a 30-27 win over Cal to clinch bowl eligibility. His first game there, however, was far more memorable.
“I remember going in there the very first time and coaching in that game, it was against Texas A&M, and we came back down 34 points,” he said. “We were down 44-10 in that game and won the game 45-44, and that was my first experience in the Rose Bowl and quite a good one.”
That game, five years ago, set in motion a butterfly effect that led to A&M firing Kevin Sumlin at the end of the 2017 season, making him available for Arizona to hire after letting go of Rich Rodriguez … then canning Sumlin three years later and replacing him with Fisch.
In other words:
One last formidable foe
UCLA marks the fifth consecutive opponents Arizona will face that is currently ranked in the Associated Press Top 25, the third that sits in the Top 10. The Wildcats have lost the first four by a combined score of 188-118 and now could be playing the best of the bunch.
“I think this team right now is playing at the highest level of good,” Fisch said of UCLA, which leads the Pac-12 in rushing and ran for 402 yards at ASU last week despite missing leading ball carrier Zach Charbonnet.
Charbonnet has 964 yards and 10 touchdowns in seven games, while quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson has run for 439 yards and seven scores in addition to 19 passing TDs and 2,100+ yards on 71.7 percent accuracy.
DTR, as he’s known, is in his fifth season of Chip Kelly’s offense and has had “incredible growth” since when Fisch recruited him at both Michigan (2015-16) and UCLA.
“I think we had him at Michigan and then when I went over to UCLA, he came over and committed us at UCLA,” Fisch said. “Actually my last recruiting visit on that staff was at his home, which was sometime in late late December, early January. He’s grown up in every sense of the way. He was a wide receiver at Bishop Gorman for when Tate Martell was the starting quarterback. And then he was the backup quarterback that would go in as soon as they would get a good lead.”
DTR will be the first true dual-threat passer Arizona has faced this season, though last week Utah brought out third-string freshman Nate Johnson for some designed runs and the Wildcats had no answer for him.
“We’ve really gone against pocket passers or, more pro style passers, I guess you would say, that have been able to move and throw but also for the most part of hung in the pocket,” Fisch said. “Dorian can hang in the pocket and throw, he’s just electric fast. We’re gonna have to play great team defense this week, we’re gonna have to have our best game on defense. You’re gonna have to swarm tackle, you’re gonna have to run to the ball, you’re gonna have to stay fresh.”
Among the many things that went wrong at Utah last week was a garbage-time knee injury to leading receiver Jacob Cowing, who had to be helped off the field after getting hurt at the end of a play in which he lost his second fumble of the game. Fisch said he’s “hopeful” that Cowing, who has practiced, will be able to play at UCLA.
Cowing has 65 catches for 846 yards, both team-bests, and is tied with Tetairoa McMillan with seven TD receptions. If he can’t go, or is limited in the number of snaps he plays, Fisch said the slot receiver role could be filled by a combination of sophomore Anthony Simpson and true freshman Kevin Green Jr.
The 5-foot-11, 170-pound Green is a 3-star prospect from Mission Hills, Calif., which is about 25 miles northwest of the Rose Bowl, who flipped from USC to Arizona last December. He’s appeared in three games this fall, getting 13 snaps on offense, but has yet to be targeted.
“I love everything about his potential.,” Fisch said. “He’s gonna be a very special slot receiver for us in the future. He’s got a really good knack to get open, which is the first and foremost thing you look for from guys that play on the inside. He’s really determined to do things right. Very, very coachable player. The more coachable they are, the better they can grow. The faster they can grow, the more willing they will be to do what you ask. He’s willing to do everything. We need to stick him in the weight room, and keep getting bigger this offseason.”
Simpson has four catches for 56 yards this season, hauling in a 51-yard catch-and-run from Noah Fifita late against Utah. He’s mostly been used on special teams, averaging 19.6 yards on kickoff returns, and could be used to replace Cowing on punt returns.
Fisch said another option for the punt return gig would be Jamarye Joiner, who was used as a Wildcat quarterback a few times earlier this season. Fisch said the need for direct snaps has gone away with Jayden de Laura showing more of a willingness to run and the “boatload of backs” Arizona has to hand off to.
Balancing where the ball goes
Arizona has run for 150-plus yards in back-to-back games, something it hadn’t done since early in 2019 before the school-record 20-game losing streak. Remove sack yardage and the average against USC and Utah was 184.5 yards per game and nearly 7.7 yards per carry.
Could this lead to the Wildcats upping their number of designed run calls? Maybe, maybe not.
“We throw when we feel like it’s the best time to throw, we run when we feel like it’s the best time to run,” Fisch said. “Score dictates a lot of things that occur in games, defense dictates a lot of things that occur in games. I think we have pretty good balance in terms of our run/pass. I don’t really think of it as one sets up the other, I think it’s a marriage between run and pass.
Fisch said being able to run and pass out of the same formations increases the likelihood of keeping it on the ground. The Wildcats normally use the same three receivers on every play but rotate at RB, with the presence of Jonah Coleman, Speedy Luke or DJ Williams on the field increasing the chance of it being a run play while Michael Wiley is more indicative of a passing situation.
“Most of the time when you have three elite wide receivers and a top-10 quarterback in the country, you’re probably going throw the ball more than run it,” Fisch said.