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October 29, 2010

UCLA to host Arizona for homecoming

Heading into this weekend, take just a moment to adjust expectations. We'll adjust them in a second. Pretend for just a few seconds that this preview is not about your team. Say it's Arizona State or Washington even SC. It's hard, but try it for a few seconds.

Remember that this team didn't do very well a year ago. Not badly, but not all that well. Say it's going up against the No. 15 team in the nation, a team with a 6-1 record, victories over Iowa, Cal, Washington and Washington State, its only loss coming by two points to Oregon State.

Now this hypothetical team - not UCLA, remember - is coming off getting wiped out two weeks in a row and in this game, this team will likely be playing three true freshmen in their front seven on defense, six new starters this season in their front seven on defense, with four starters lost from those once projected to start this season on the offensive line and yet one more, who has been starting, ineligible to play this week as well. With the backup at quarterback and only one quarterback behind him, a junior college transfer this season who is yet to play at this level.

Now, if this were Arizona State or Washington or SC being previewed, what would you think of this team's chances on Saturday?

Probably not very much.

And you'd probably be right to think that way.

But this time it is UCLA we're talking about. And it really doesn't matter if the fan base feels let down or angry or frustrated or abandoned by it, or on whom they want to lay the blame, or even why. All that matters is this is the game this week; this is your team going with what it has to go with, and this is the opponent it has drawn.

In fact, it seems kind of surprising that UCLA is only 8.5 point underdog.

On the other hand, there are perhaps some reasons to think there might just be some reasons for hope.

Focusing on Arizona, some facts really stand out in the conference stats as reflected in the two schools' media releases this week. Most significant, the 6-1 'Cats lead the conference in rush defense, stand second in pass defense, and rank first overall in total defense as well as in scoring defense. They also lead the conference and rank 3rd in the nation in sacks, recording nearly four a game on the average, a statistic that doesn't bode all that well against a team with pass protection and pocket awareness challenges of its own.

While Arizona is 8th in the Pac 10 in rushing offense, they are first in passing offense, gaining just a hair under 300 yards a game through the air. Overall they stand 5th in terms of offense but, combined with their potent defense, that's been good enough for them most of the time so far.

Punting and punt returns, they're not that impressive, but kickoff returns they are again atop the conference and 3rd in the nation.

They average 12 more points scored a game than do the Bruins but allow 17 fewer points to their opponents; add them together and that comes to a 29 point spread. It is true, Arizona hasn't had to face Oregon or Stanford yet, but they have played Cal (10-9 victory after Cal blew two potentially game-winning field goals).

Last game, junior Matt Scott (6-3, 190), who wears No. 4, subbed in for injured junior starter No. 8 Nick Foles (6-5, 245) and showed why he was highly regarded before Foles took the starting position away.

Against Washington, Scott hit 18 of 22 passes for 233 yards and two touchdowns, added 65 yards rushing - better than 9 yards per attempt - and managed an outstanding game. Scott, the backup, is pretty darn good, and he adds the threat of running the ball to his passing ability. Foles, should he recover and play this week, figures to have more limited mobility, but widely considered to be a future NFL quarterback.

Against Washington, Arizona also turned the running game on, gaining 234 yards. Junior Keola Antolin (5-8, 195), who wears No. 2, gained 114 and the senior No.5 Nic Grigsby (5-10, 190) added 50 more (on 12 carries), each scoring two touchdowns in the process.

You're talking strengths here, you're talking pass protection on offense, with an added ability to exploit openings on the ground when defenders fail to hold gap assignments, and on defense you're talking front seven.

Defensive end No. 44, senior Ricky Elmore (6-5, 260) leads the conference with 7 sacks already this season. The other defensive end is No. 42 senior Brooks Reed (6-3, 255) is second with 4.5. Arizona ranks 8th nationally in tackles for loss.

Finally, Arizona is 12th nationally in forcing opponents to go three-and-out, achieving that success an average of four times a game to this point. And they are only one short of having converted 50 percent of their own third down attempts.

Arizona isn't perfect, and they're not Oregon, but it sure sounds like they've earned their national ranking, at least to this point.

Arizona's offensive line is big. The weights, surrounding 295-pound center Colin Baxter, run 335 at each guard position and 325 and 330 at the tackle. Four are seniors and the other is a junior. Heights go 6-7, 6-6, 6-5 and two at 6-4.

Starting wide receivers are all juniors, standing 6-4, 6-1 and 5-9, - the latter would be the aptly nicknamed No. 19, junior Bug Wright. The tight end is 6-3, 255 pound senior No. 88 A.J. Simmons.

On defense, the Cats go with three seniors and one freshman on the defensive line, a sophomore and two juniors among the linebackers, two junior cornerbacks backed up by a couple of senior safeties.

It seems pretty clear that the clawed up Bruins are going to have to find some way to come up with a Herculean effort if they are to have a chance to take this one.

Richard Brehaut's passing ability runs smack dab into the conference's best defensive team. The Bruins' offensive line will have to take on the conference's best run defense.

Offensive Coordinator Norm Chow will have to devise some safe passes to keep Arizona's defense honest - yes, roll Brehaut out or go to a bunch of really quick release throws - and then rely on the running backs to squeeze through some seams and move the chains, the clock, and hopefully the scoreboard as well.

On defense, it's going to require discipline and a whole lot of toughness.

It won't be easy, but it is at home which has been a huge advantage of late in the Pac 10. We'll just have to see if the Bruins can find a way to reverse the trend from the last two games.


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