ESPN’s “College Game Day” heads to Tucson this weekend as No. 9 UCLA (3-0) visits No. 16 Arizona (3-0) in a primetime Pac-12 showdown between two teams that haven’t won a conference championship since 1998.
With USC losing an in-conference battle last weekend to Stanford, the Bruins and Wildcats are considered the favorites to represent the Pac-12 South in the conference championship game, which, with a win, would likely catapult either program into the College Football Playoff. Saturday would be Rich Rodriguez’s 30th win since taking over at Arizona — and spinning the program 180 degrees — in 2012. He has never beaten Jim Mora and UCLA in three tries; the only Pac-12 team he has yet to beat.
Moreover, in ranked-vs.-ranked scenarios, history favors the Bruins, who haven’t lost as a ranked team to Arizona in nearly a decade.
However, there’s reason to believe that Arizona is dangerous enough this time around to pull off the upset.
Under sophomore quarterback Anu Solomon, the Wildcats are leading the conference in total offense, rushing offense, scoring offense, and turnover margin. More than half the team’s scoring drives have taken fewer than two minutes, and last week the team set new single-game school records in total offense (792 yards) and points (77) against Northern Arizona.
Solomon, a Las Vegas native, has thrown for 778 yards and a conference-leading 10 touchdowns; he’s averaging the third-best quarterback rating among Pac-12 quarterbacks (162.8), and has yet to account for a turnover. The more critical link of the Wildcats’ offense, though, may be sophomore running back Nick Wilson, who is leading the conference in rushing yards (434) and rushing touchdowns (five). Arizona has never lost when he eclipses the 100-yard threshold on the ground (9-0).
“We haven’t really held back in the last three games,” Rodriguez said Monday. “I have fun based on winning, so if we play well and win this week I’ll have fun, and if we lose I’ll be miserable.”
The Bruins are an elite defensive unit, currently ranked No. 23 in efficiency, and could certainly crash the College Football Playoff picture. However, defensive coordinator Tom Bradley has already lost starting cornerback Fabian Moreau for the season, and it was announced Wednesday that star linebacker Myles Jack is done for the year, too. As Pro Football Focus noted, the versatile Jack was the team’s primary slot defender which, given Arizona’s spread offensive attack and propensity to have receivers dissecting the middle of the field, is an area the Wildcats can now exploit all the more with him removed from the equation.
There are myriad questions facing UCLA freshman quarterback Josh Rosen entering this week: How will he fare in the first true road test of his collegiate career? What can we expect from him following a three-interception performance—two of which were in the red zone—against Brigham Young?
Winning the turnover battle is vital regardless of opponent, but it’s particularly pressing Saturday, as the Wildcats are 20-4 under defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel when they produce multiple turnovers.
After appearing transcendent in the season opener, Rosen has fallen to ninth in the Pac-12 in quarterback rating (126.6) and has already accounted for more turnovers (four) than Arizona has as a team (two). “I probably played one of the worst games of my career,” he said after Saturday’s win. “And we still beat a top-20 team in the country.”
The hope, for UCLA, is that his turnover-prone quality doesn’t manifest this week, because the Wildcats are steeped in offensive firepower, ranking No. 22 in offensive efficiency. This isn’t a team you can afford to blow red-zone scoring opportunities against.
Last year’s conference-leading rusher, UCLA running back Paul Perkins, ranks seventh in the nation with 429 yards on the ground this season and will be tasked with keeping the offense multi-dimensional. “I definitely want the load back there,” Perkins said recently. Rosen is the prototypical pocket passer and has only scrambled three times this season. If the Wildcats can press against UCLA’s veteran offensive line, disrupt Perkins in the backfield, and fluster the teenager, they should have little difficulty creating turnovers or stripping away the rhythm of the Bruins’ offensive attack.
Arizona hasn’t faced a competent offense yet this season, but may be returning Scooby Wright III, who many consider to be the top linebacker in the country, to the fold this week. Casteel’s crew ranks 92nd in defensive efficiency, but has been able to keep Oregon (sans last year’s Pac-12 title game), as high-octane an offense as they come, in check each of the past two seasons
Arizona is producing unprecedented levels of offensive output through the first three weeks of the season and is now brushing up against an opponent removed of its defensive linchpin. Under Rodriguez, Arizona is 3-1 against top 10 opponents and the lights will perhaps never be brighter for the fourth-year head coach than this Saturday. If Solomon and his bevy of deep-play threats churn out even a modicum of last week’s output, look for the Wildcats to notch the program’s first marquee victory of the 2015 season.
Josh Planos has been published at the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the Guardian, the Pacific Standard and VICE, among other publications. He has been heard on CBS Sports Radio, Fox Sports Radio and ESPN Radio. Planos is currently a Digital Editor at KETV NewsWatch 7 and a freelance writer.