Through eight games this season, Arizona has the highest pass-blocking grade in the country according to Pro Football Focus. Not bad for a group that’s yet to produce a Pac-12 Offensive Lineman of the Week winner.
Even more surprising, though, is that 20th-ranked UCLA has only had one defensive player recognized for a conference weekly award despite leading the league in almost every statistical category. The Bruins are tops in scoring defense (15 points per game), rushing (63.1 YPG, 2.1 yards per carry), total defense (277.5/4.24) and sacks (31) and have PFF’s top grades in pass rush and overall defense.
“It’s a really good scheme they got going,” UA offensive coordinator Brennan Carroll said. “They pulled it from what’s in vogue in the NFL, they’ve got that Vic Fangio deal going on.”
UCLA’s scheme relies heavily on pressuring the quarterback, and it has three guys who do it better than almost everyone else in the conference.
Senior Laiatu Latu and juniors Gabriel and Grayson Murphy have combined for 121 quarterback pressures this season. Overall the Bruins (6-2, 3-2 Pac-12) have 212, compared to 117 for Arizona, with Jacob Manu and Taylor Upshaw tops individually with 21 pressures apiece.
“Those guys are really active,” Carroll said. “They have the ability to play in their gap and then get out of their gap and still be able to make plays, which is a challenge for us. Those guys are all in the field and very active, they can line up anywhere on the defensive line and can drop into coverage.”
Arizona as a team has been charged with allowing 54 pressures on 337 dropbacks, about one every 6.2 snaps. Left tackle Jordan Morgan has had 12 pressures, giving up two sacks, while right tackle Jonah Savaiinaea has allowed two sacks and seven pressures. Both of those sacks came last week against Oregon State, when Brennan said Savaiinaea’s technique was off, and he also picked up his first holding penalty of the season on a pass play.
“Our philosophy will always be inside out pass coverage and he unfortunately went outside in,” Carroll said.
Wiley’s growing toolkit
Michael Wiley became the second running back in school history with over 1,000 receiving yards last weekend, doing so on the 40-yard catch and tiptoe up the sidelines for the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter. He added a second TD reception later in the period, and for his UA career has nine receiving TDs, two fewer than Vance Johnson (the school’s first 1,000-yard receiving RB) had from 1981-84.
That knack for catching passes out of the backfield—Wiley is up to 115, 19th-most in school history and tops among non-receivers—will be a valuable skill for him if he gets a shot in the NFL next year. So too will his ability to block on pass plays, which was also on display against Oregon State in his limited time on the field.
UA coach Jedd Fisch said he wanted to limit Wiley, who missed the previous three games with a high ankle sprain, to 10 or 12 snaps in his first game back. The fifth-year senior played 17, 11 on pass plays including three where he stayed in to pick up a blitz or a free rusher.
Wiley said he did a fair amount of pass protection in high school. It helped that his coach at Houston’s Strake Jesuit, Klay Kubiak, is the son of former NFL quarterback and longtime coach Gary Kubiak.
“I kind of knew that West Coast offense when Fisch came in, it wasn’t new to me,” Wiley said. “I struggled a bit (at first) with the size and speed, but I’ve gotten better over the years.”
Carroll said during his time coaching in the NFL he was sometimes involved in draft evaluations of running backs, and the ability to pass protect was one of the first questions asked.
“A lot of times it’s a yes or no question,” Carroll said. “To be good in pass pro, especially at the running back position, you’ve got to have a great awareness of what’s going on, you have to know the scheme, and he has to know his adjustments. It takes a lot, a lot of study. It doesn’t come naturally to most guys. It’s a choice that you have to make if you want to be good at pass protection. To show his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, show his ability to pass block, and to run all the traditional NFL run schemes, it’s a huge benefit.”
First defensive series stumbles
Arizona has held its last four Pac-12 opponents below their season scoring average, but in the past two games it didn’t look that way early on. Both Washington State and Oregon State scored on their opening drives, and in each case Arizona didn’t look like it was prepared for what the opponent was doing.
Then came the rest of the games. WSU wouldn’t score again, managing only 124 yards after getting 75 on the first drive, while OSU punted on four of its final eight drives and also had its first non-scoring red zone possession of the season.
Was Arizona sandbagging defensively? More like settling in, defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen said.
“You’re just trying to have a feel for what they’re doing,” he said. “When we played USC, Washington and Washington State, those were kind of similar. And then you go to Oregon State, that was a different world, I’m glad we had a bye week to prepare for that. Now we’re going into a different world with (UCLA), because Chip (Kelly) will throw everything at you.”
Nansen said offenses tend to have the advantage at the start of a game because it gets to act while the defense has to react.
“The timeline that we have to prepare for a game it’s to the offense’s advantage,” he said. “They just run their plays and us, we gotta adjust to what we’re gonna see.”
Initial playoff rankings announced
The first College Football Playoff rankings were revealed on Tuesday, and not surprisingly Arizona wasn’t included in the Top 25. Beat UCLA, however, and the Wildcats could make appearance next week.
UCLA is No. 19 in the initial rankings, one of six Pac-12 schools in there. Washington is the top Pac-12 team at No. 5, with Oregon at No. 6, Oregon State at No. 16, Utah at No. 18 and USC and No. 20.