It’s been a roller coaster of expectations for this Arizona football team in 2020. Heading into the start of the season, the Wildcats were projected to be the basement dwellers of the Pac-12 standings but a strong performance against USC in its season opener had some of those doubters turning into believers.
Those promising expectations did not stick around for much longer after an embarrassing 44-27 loss to Washington last week that moved the Wildcats’ record to 0-2 to start the year. Now this team is back at square one with a ton of unaddressed issues.
“Everybody is disappointed; nobody is happy,” head coach Kevin Sumlin said. “There’s nobody in this building that is happy. The expectations going into that weekend were to get better, and that didn’t happen.”
Arizona continues its slate of road games by traveling to the Rose Bowl this weekend to face the UCLA Bruins (1-2) who are coming off of a competitive 35-38 loss to No. 15 Oregon last Saturday.
The game is scheduled for 5 p.m. PST/6 p.m. MST and will be televised on FOX. Here are some things to watch for this weekend.
UCLA’s uncertainty at QB, familiar faces and the Bruins’ dynamic offense
UCLA was playing without nine players because of COVID-19 related issues during its loss to No. 15 Oregon last week, including starting quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson.
Thompson-Robinson will most likely be unavailable to practice this week due to the COVID-19 guidelines, making it a strong possibility for him to miss Saturday’s game against Arizona.
If Thompson-Robinson is unable to play again this week, the Bruins will look to Chase Griffin, a redshirt freshman from Round Rock, Texas who started last week against the Ducks and threw for 195 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.
“Even with DTR out, we’ve got to prepare for both of them,” Sumlin said. “Chase Griffin … we’re very familiar with him from where he’s from, and we know what kind of competitor he is.”
Griffin is also familiar with Arizona’s defensive scheme; he was UCLA’s scout team quarterback last season where he competed in practice against the Wildcats’ defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads when he was the defensive backs coach for the Bruins last season.
As if game planning for two different quarterbacks isn’t hard enough, Sumlin said that he is also concerned about Chip Kelly’s new style of offense with NFL caliber Demetric Felton leading the way at the tailback position.
“[Kelly] jumped into what we call an unbalanced set or a loaded set, and Oregon had a hard time stopping it,” Sumlin said. “Felton had a heck of a day. Offensively, they had guys out, but they were able to utilize the run game and stay in the game, so they have talent there.”
Will we see another week of Arizona’s struggling offensive line?
It seemed like one of the Wildcats’ more reliable position groups heading into the new year with each of Arizona’s five starters on the offensive line returning with game experience under their belts from last year.
However, the group has underperformed so far, giving up nine sacks in the first two games. Five of those were surrendered to Washington last week where right tackle Paiton Fears got beat twice and gave up two sacks on the same drive before being benched in the third quarter while left guard Donovan Laie allowed a strip-sack to Huskies’ linebacker Edefuan Ulofoshio.
“There were issues across the board,” Sumlin said. “What we have to do is continue to grow as an offensive line, and then we’ve got to communicate a little better up front. We have to adjust and also give our guys a plan where, in situations like that, schematically it’s good, but maybe physically there’s been mismatches, or matchup problems and matchup issues. We need to recognize that quicker and have answers.”
So will we see similar results against the Bruins on Saturday? Well, UCLA’s defense leads the Pac-12 in sacks to this point with 10 so you tell me.
“They’ve done a good job on third-downs too,” Sumlin said of UCLA’s defense. “I think they’re in the top three or four in our league with 36%, something like that, on third-down defense. They’re getting you behind the chains with sacks, and they’re playing well on third downs and getting off the field and getting their offense the ball.”
Letting the kids play
The Wildcats were down 37-0 at one point in that Washington game which prompted Sumlin to inadvertently wave the white flag and change out his starters to give the younger and more inexperienced players a chance to play.
Backup offensive linemen Tyson Gardner, Steven Bailey and Josh Donovan were all subbed in late in the game while freshman wide receiver Ma’jon Wright and freshman running back Jalen John were also amongst the several substitutions made last Saturday.
John had a very solid day in his first game rushing for 30 yards on just four attempts, but it was Ma’jon Wright who proved his potential and stole the show in the second half, catching four balls for 58 yards and recording his first career touchdown against the Huskies.
“[Wright] is a football player. He’s not some guy that’s out there to be on the camera or anything,” quarterback Grant Gunnell said of his receiver following the game. “He wants to be on the field catching balls. He’s a player; he’s a dog. He’s gonna get in your face. He’s going to beat you off the press and stuff like that. That’s what impressed me the most.”
Sumlin noted that the backups still have a long way to go but was optimistic about the confidence boost that came with the uptick in playing time.
“Individually for some of those young guys that came in there and played, there’s some confidence that they can get out of it,” Sumlin said. “Some of the linemen that were in there and some of the young D-linemen that got in really for the first time. But obviously, there’s a reason why the backups are in there, and so the most important thing is to come back to work on Monday with those guys that were playing early in the game and get their confidence to the level it was a week ago.”
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