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What to watch for when Arizona football hosts No. 20 UCLA on Homecoming

arizona-wildcats-football-preview-ucla-bruins-homecoming-bowl-eligibility-defense-fifita-delaura Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Arizona’s first win under Jedd Fisch came on Homecoming. Three years later, the Wildcats’ first chance to clinch bowl eligibility will also come before an alumni-heavy crowd Saturday night against No. 20 UCLA.

This marks the fifth consecutive ranked opponent that Arizona (5-3, 3-2 Pac-12) has faced. It lost the first two by seven and two points, respectively, the second in triple overtime, then blew out then-No. 19 Washington State on the road and last week took down then-No. 11 Oregon State at Arizona Stadium.

The win over OSU marked the first time the Wildcats had won back-to-back games over ranked opponents since 2014, the first time since 2006 they did it when unranked themselves.

Three in a row over ranked foes? That’s never happened in school history. The UA has only beaten three or more ranked teams in an entire season on four occasions, most recently in 2014.

Here’s what to watch for when Arizona takes on UCLA on Homecoming:

Grabbing that bowl bid

Arizona hasn’t been bowl-eligible since 2017, and 2018 was the last time it had a chance to become eligible when it took a 5-5 record into the final two seasons of the season. It then proceeded to lose69-28 at Washington State and then blow a 19-point fourth-quarter lead at home to ASU.

A year later, the Wildcats were 4-1 before dropping the final seven games of the season, the start of what would be a school-record 20-game losing streak.

In other words, being on the cusp of a bowl game is never easy. But Fisch isn’t shying away from using the ‘B’ word in front of his players.

“I don’t subscribe to the coachspeak, really, I just like to tell them honestly,” he said. “Heck, we win we go to a bowl. Why would I not talk about it? It’s right in front of you, go take it if you can do it.”

Fisch noted that Arizona’s win at UCLA last season kept its faint bowl hopes alive, at 4-6, only to have them dashed a week later at home to Washington State.

Solving the UCLA defense

On Tuesday, offensive coordinator Brennan Carroll noted that UCLA has “that Vic Fangio deal going on” with its defense, a nod to the veteran NFL coach’s schemes that have him one of the most respected defensive minds in the pros. Fisch has name-dropped Fangio in the past, but he says he didn’t reach out to his colleague for tips on how to contend with the Bruins’ conference-leading defense.

UCLA (6-2, 3-2) is tops in the Pac-12 in scoring defense, run defense, total defense and sacks. It has three players with at least 40 QB pressures on the season, combining for more than Arizona has as a team. Because of all that pressure, teams may try to run on the Bruins but that hasn’t worked.

They allow 2.1 yards per carry and have yielded just one touchdown, and in the red zone opponents are gaining negative yards per rush.

This defense is all-new for the Bruins, brought in by former NFL assistant D’Anton Lynn. A year ago UCLA gave up 29 points per game.

“They’ve done a really, really nice job of mixing coverages, making it challenging,” Fisch said. “They’ve got really good pass rushers. They’re going to give you some illusions of certain coverages and then play something different. You have to be prepared for that. Reminds me a little bit of what we saw at Stanford.”

The Stanford game was arguably Arizona’s worst from an offensive standpoint, gaining only 349 yards and a season-low 21 points. Jayden de Laura looked very tentative against the Cardinal, leading the Wildcats to just two scores in nine drives before getting hurt, with Noah Fifita coming on in the fourth quarter and leading the game-winning TD possession.

Each team’s quarterback(s)

UCLA made a change at quarterback two weeks ago, going back to Ethan Garbers—who had started the season opener—after true freshman Dante Moore started five straight games but struggled in Pac-12 play. Moore threw six interceptions in his three conference starts, with three getting returned for TDs.

Garbers completed more than 70 percent of his passes in wins over Stanford and Colorado, with four TDs and a pick, and also ran for 88 yards. The 6-foot-4 junior is more of a game manager than the prolific passers Arizona has faced the previous four games, but his percentage of “turnover-worthy plays” is only behind only Bo Nix, Michael Penix Jr. and Shedeur Sanders among Pac-12 QBs with at least three starts.

Fifita is at 2.7, while de Laura is tied for most in the league at 5.4.

That was one of many stats that made it seem obvious Arizona needed to stick with Fifita as the starter once de Laura was fully healed from an ankle injury. That, and winning three Pac-12 Freshman of the Week awards in one month.

Yet in Fisch’s eyes, there isn’t a QB1 and QB2. In fact, some of his comments Thursday made it seem like both could play against UCLA.

“Noah has started the last four games, that’s the only change that’s occurred,” he said. “Now we are sitting here and we’re going to continue to figure out each week who we want to play.They are both preparing like the starter every single week, and that is what their job should be. I just tell them that at 7:35 I’ll let them know who is going to take the first snap.”

Alumni watch

Fisch said 227 former players have reached out for tickets to the Homecoming game, and among those that will be in attendance are Rob Gronkowski, Khalil Tate and two-time USFL champion Scooby Wright III. Gronk and Tate are the honorary captains, with Tate making his first appearance at a UA game since finishing his career in 2019.

Maybe some of them can bring friends and family to help fill out a crowd that doesn’t look like it will become the second sellout of the season. Fisch said there were a little more than 44,000 seats sold for the 50,800-seat stadium.

“We still have tickets available,” he said. “I’m not sure how that’s possible, but we do, so hopefully we could sell the rest of them. Hopefully we can be packed. A packed house would be really, really, really good for this game against a really good opponent who we’ve spent the last four days watching.”

The Washington game sold out on Sept. 30, aided by it being Family Weekend. That, like every home game this season, has started at 7 p.m. or later, with the Nov. 18 home finale against Utah the last remaining opportunity for a game to kick off before the sun sets.