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UCLA football expert previews the Arizona game, makes a score prediction

arizona-wildcats-football-ucla-bruins-preview-interview-chip-kelly-laiatu-latu-murphy-defense-pac12 Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

For the last handful of games, Arizona has gone up against some of the top offenses in the Pac-12, and each time it held the opponent below its season scoring average. But for Homecoming, and a shot at becoming bowl eligible, the Wildcats will be dealing with a foe more known for stout defense than explosive offense.

No. 20 UCLA (6-2, 3-2 Pac-12) is allowing just 15 points per game, giving up 17 or fewer in seven of eight contests. The UA (5-3, 3-2) has scored at least 21 in every game this season.

To better understand the Bruins and coach Chip Kelly, we reached out to Dimitri Dorlis of The Mighty Bruin for some insight. Here are his illustrious answers to our obscure questions.

AZ Desert Swarm: UCLA is the top defensive team in the Pac-12, leading the conference in almost every statistical category, and has some of the top defensive grades in the country according to Pro Football Focus. What have been the keys to the massive improvement from a year ago?

Dimitri Dorlis: “The easiest answer is to point towards defensive coordinator D’Anton Lynn, who the Bruins brought in from the Baltimore Ravens this past offseason. Lynn had never coordinated a defense prior to this year, but his resume is stout and he’s the son of former Los Angeles Chargers coach Anthony Lynn, and he brings a no-nonsense mentality to that side of the ball. Lynn has been really smart about when and how he brings pressure, and he’s got the UCLA defensive line, which doesn’t lack for talent, making plays in the backfield with regularity. I think you can look at general improvements among multiple players (the Murphy twins in particular don’t look out of depth at the defensive end spots), smarter personnel usage (more usage of Carl Jones as a defensive end/linebacker hybrid and switching to Jaylen Davies at a corner spot), and a couple good additions (Oluwafemi Oladejo from Cal and freshman Kamari Ramsey are new faces) but the biggest one has been Lynn.”

The Bruins also lead the conference in rushing, doing so despite only 9 rushing yards in the Pac-12 opener against Utah. What has made this possible?

“The rushing thing is interesting and a bit misleading, because I don’t think any UCLA fan has been satisfied with the rushing attack at this point. Part of that probably has to do with what UCLA was trotting out the last few years, with a mauling offensive line blocking for Zach Charbonnet, but most of those guys are off to the NFL now. The UCLA offensive line has not been very good this year, and the combination of TJ Harden and Ball State transfer Carson Steele have had to grind out their yardage. The fact that UCLA is leading the conference in rushing is more due to volume and most of the conference having prolific passers than anything else.”

True freshman Dante Moore began the season as the starting quarterback but lately Ethan Garbers has been in that role. What led to the change, and what does Garbers bring to the table?

“It’s a controversial topic among Bruin fans currently, but Dante Moore got benched because he was turning the ball over too much. He had six interceptions in three games, three of which went the other way for touchdowns. Moore is probably the most talented quarterback on the roster but his proclivity for turning the ball over was costing the Bruins games. That said, two of those games were on the road at Utah and Oregon State, and the middle game was against Washington State before its recent swoon, so it’s hard to completely blame him.

“Ethan Garbers has played much better than Moore since being re-inserted into the lineup, but his performances have come against Stanford and Colorado, two of the worst defenses in the conference. Garbers is very much a game manager; he has a good arm but is going to try and make the least-risky play when possible. That has worked out for the Bruins, especially with his scrambling ability which has kept UCLA on schedule more often than not, but we haven’t seen him against even a decent defense yet this season.

“We’ll probably also see some Collin Schlee in this game. The Kent State transfer has been featured in gadget plays, similar to what you see the New Orleans Saints do with Taysom Hill. He provides a very different look that Arizona will need to prepare for.”

Who are the defensive players that Arizona needs to be most concerned with?

“Honestly, you could just throw a dart at a board and name guys. There are some obvious ones, like defensive end Laiatu Latu, who has nine sacks on the year and looks like a potential first round pick, or Gabrial and Grayson Murphy, who look more focused in their second year at the P5 level. Carl Jones has similarly been a do-everything force along the defensive front. In the linebackers, Darius Muasau has looked more comfortable after an up-and-down first season following his transfer from Hawai’i, while Kain Medrano has maybe been the defensive MVP with how he always seems to be around the play. In the secondary, Jaylin Davies stabilized what had looked like a shaky unit at the start of the year, while Kamari Ramsey looks like he’s going to be a star for this defense for the next few years.”

Chip Kelly is one of the more outspoken coaches in the Pac-12, never afraid to speak his mind. Do you think this will translate well into the Big Ten?

“I don’t think his outspoken nature is going to be a problem in a conference with Jim Harbaugh, PJ Fleck, and James Franklin (and soon to include Dan Lanning as well). The bigger issue is going to be whether his vision for building a program is going to stand up. UCLA’s recruiting has been pretty subpar for years under Kelly, and while the transfer portal has helped him fill a ton of gaps the last couple years, that does not feel sustainable long-term, especially when you look at things like the offensive line, which brought in three transfers this offseason but is struggling to put things together. The defense has been outstanding this year but many of the names are seniors who may or may not use their COVID year, so there could be a ton of turnover on that side of the ball, and the depth behind them is really unknown. Maybe it works out, but that’s going to be the big question about how he does in the coming years.”

Prediction time. Can Arizona knock off the Bruins for a second year in a row and become bowl eligible or will UCLA ruin Homecoming in Tucson? Give us a score pick.

“I have a group chat with a bunch of UCLA friends, and when they released the game time last week, the chat immediately filled up with messages of “UCLA will lose that game and I won’t even be mad about it”. This has nothing to do with the quality of Arizona and everything to do with the simple fact that a late-night game against Arizona, especially on the road, is where ranked UCLA teams go to die. I don’t think Arizona is going to sneak up on UCLA like they did last year when they caught the Bruins looking ahead to Southern Cal, but I don’t think the result will be that dissimilar. The UCLA defense is going to keep the Bruins in the game, but I have questions about the Bruin offense. I’ll say 17-10 Arizona for now, though I would really really like to be wrong.”