LOS ANGELES – Rhett Rodriguez wasn’t as efficient in the first half of Arizona’s 31-30 loss to the UCLA Bruins on Saturday night as the Wildcats were hoping for, but it wasn’t entirely his fault.
Arizona got off to an awfully slow start, offensively – one that prevented the Wildcats from scoring until halfway through the second quarter.
The sophomore signal-caller headed into the locker room at halftime boasting a lopsided 38-percent completion rate.
Arizona offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone seemed to be the root of the problem, however, not Rodriguez.
Rather than choosing to establish the quick-hitting passing game – the route that Rodriguez flashed potential in during his second-half debut versus Utah last weekend – Mazzone continually called plays that prolonged Rodriguez’s decision-making, therefore ruining any chance to get into a rhythm.
Instead of connecting with Shawn Poindexter or Shun Brown on short vertical throws, Rodriguez was tasked with surveying the entire defense. As a result, he struggled to get enough velocity deep down the field.
Eventually, Rodriguez did find a groove, but his success later in the game didn’t erase Mazzone’s deficient play-calling.
Instead, it was the emergence of Arizona’s recently lackluster rushing attack that almost saved the day.
After a first half chock-full of questionable play calls – highlighted by Mazzone choosing to run the rock on 3rd and 6 after multiple rushing attempts – Rodriguez settled into the pocket, began delivering the ball on time and leaned a little bit more on his running backs.
It was exactly how Arizona’s offensive game plan should have been dialed up from the get-go. Except, it wasn’t.
Starting Rodriguez was the right move, but not playing to his strengths demonstrated that Arizona’s inconsistencies on offense have more to do with the coach’s inability to adjust the game plan than anything else.
After being bailed out by a surprisingly strong effort to contain the Bruins run game by Arizona’s defense, the Wildcat offense started to pick up the slack in the second half.
Only by then, Arizona found itself at a 10-point disadvantage, clinging to any and all hope that the Wildcats could put together a well-rounded performance on both sides of the ball after the break.
Arizona nearly did just that, but the Bruins proved time and time again that they weren’t willing to succumb to a Wildcat comeback.
Rodriguez was brilliant at times, threading the needle on a third-quarter touchdown pass to Poindexter and carefully moving the Wildcats into scoring position on multiple occasions, but he also made costly mistakes, including two interceptions that simply proved to be too much to overcome.
While there were moments of clarity for Arizona’s offense – most notably two huge gains by J.J. Taylor and Gary Brightwell – there were also instances of bewilderment and controversy.
Arizona’s dynamic backfield duo combined for 275 yards on the ground, but Taylor’s longest run of the night was wasted with a fumble near the goal line.
The Wildcats didn’t back down under the Rose Bowl lights, but they didn’t help themselves much either.
Rodriguez’s limited arm strength resulted in a pair of Bruins interceptions, once on an early drive that should have garnered points and later when Arizona started to gain some semblance of momentum.
Arizona was eventually able to secure a lead, thanks to a Taylor touchdown run at the start of the fourth quarter, but it vanished almost as quickly as it was achieved.
The Bruins brushed off a slow start on the ground by busting loose for a 28-yard go-ahead touchdown run with 11:33 to go. It ended up being the game’s decisive score.
Arizona’s front seven did an efficient job of stalling UCLA’s run game for the majority of the contest but failed to tackle the ball carrier when the score was finally in their favor.
If it weren’t for Arizona’s own second-half surge on the ground, UCLA may have run away with this one.
With an ideal blend of rushes and passes late in the game, Arizona managed to stay within striking distance. Unfortunately, Rodriguez settling down in the pocket and finding his timing with his receivers wasn’t enough.
When the game was on the line, facing a 3rd and 6 in Bruins territory, Mazzone dialed up yet another questionable play call: a fade route to the back corner of the end zone.
Following his coach’s instruction, and targeting his primary receiver, Rodriguez uncorked a throw that ultimately sailed out of bounds but was thrown into double coverage nonetheless.
Settling for a field goal that left Arizona down 31-30 with six minutes to play wasn’t ideal – especially considering the Bruins' sudden success running the football.
It’s easy to look back and suggest Arizona should have executed a more effective passing play deep in UCLA territory with the game on the line, but that’s not necessarily fair. Assuming that the Wildcats would have scored a touchdown had they converted on that crucial third down isn’t given either.
There were times when things seemed to be clicking for Arizona’s offense, and there were times when it appeared coaches and players weren’t on the same page.
With Oregon headed to Tucson next weekend, it will be imperative for Arizona to correct the mistakes that it has been prone to making over the last several weeks.
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