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Arizona Wildcats vs. UCLA Bruins Preview and Prediction


Pac-12 South foes Arizona and UCLA may be opponents Saturday in the Rose Bowl, but the Wildcats and Bruins can commiserate over their near-misses last week against top-10 competition.

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Arizona took No. 10 Washington to overtime, but failed to match the Huskies' extra-frame touchdown. UCLA led Stanford for the better part of 59 minutes, but a last-minute Cardinal scoring drive thwarted an outstanding defensive performance from the Bruins.

Regardless of the circumstances, an impressive loss shows up the same in the standings as a weak one. Arizona and UCLA meet Saturday with identical 0-1 Pac-12 dockets, and the loser leaves Pasadena in an 0-2 hole that may well preclude them from competing for the divisional title.

For Arizona, Saturday also presents the challenge of avoiding another 0-for hole. Since Jim Mora's arrival at UCLA in 2012, the Wildcats are 0-4 against the Bruins.

Arizona at UCLA

Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 1 at 10:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Line: UCLA -13.5

Three Things to Watch

1. UCLA Front Seven vs. Brandon Dawkins

Quarterback Anu Solomon's injury issues in 2015 repeatedly doomed the Wildcats, but his absence for much of this season has not hindered Arizona in the same manner. That's because sophomore Brandon Dawkins has looked great, adding a dual-threat dimension to the Arizona offense not seen in the same capacity since head coach Rich Rodriguez's first year.

That campaign, Matt Scott flourished as a two-way passing and rushing threat. Dawkins has provided a similar element, passing for 625 yards in three games, and rushing for 391. He went for 176 yards and a pair of scores on the ground against Washington's stout defense, but replicating that success against UCLA's loaded front seven will be a tall task.

Rodriguez said the UCLA defense has "no weaknesses," noting the depth and physicality of the Bruins' linemen and linebackers. Athletic Jayon Brown is likely to spy Dawkins to counter the run, while Kenny Young — who has really started coming into his own as a playmaker — will supplement the pass rush from Deon Hollins and Takkarist McKinley.

McKinley gave UCLA its first sack against Stanford in three years on Saturday. Hollins had one of his own, but a penalty elsewhere on the play negated the outstanding blitz.

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2. Arizona's Dwindling RB Corps

Arizona's leading ball carrier of the previous two seasons, Nick Wilson, sustained an injury early into the Week 3 contest against Hawaii, opening the door for J.J. Taylor to break out in a big way. Taylor continued his torrid performance against Washington, approaching 100 yards against the stout Huskies defense, when he too was sidelined.

Rodriguez called the Taylor injury "especially disheartening."

With Orlando Bradford removed from the team following a domestic violence arrest, the Wildcats' running back depth is virtually nonexistent. Wide receiver Tyrell Johnson moves into the backfield, and walk-on Branden Leon is expected to join the mix with power-back Zach Green in the redistribution of carries.

3. UCLA Finding Its Offense

The first three weeks marked a feeling-out period for a new-look UCLA offense. The Bruins have shown flashes of brilliance in coordinator Kennedy Polamalu's system, most recently with quarterback Josh Rosen's targeting of tight end Nate Iese against Stanford. Iese scored on a beautiful slant pattern in the red zone and gave UCLA a mid-range weapon that nicely complements the long-ball threat of Kenny Walker III.

Sustaining such flashes has proven difficult, however. The Bruins failed to reach the end zone Week 1 against Texas A&M until the fourth quarter. The last two weeks against BYU and Stanford, UCLA mustered just 30 total points.

UCLA's rushing attack has yet to really take off. Soso Jamabo has shown glimmers, especially Week 2 against UNLV. His size could pose problems for Arizona's undersized front seven. But Bruin receivers have to make plays, starting with simple catches. Drops have been an issue, which made Iese's reliability last week such an integral part of the offense.

Final Analysis

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Football fate can be cruel. Both Arizona and UCLA are an overtime loss and another final-minute drive away from being 4-0 and presumably ranked in the top 10 in the polls. Neither has played as bad as a 2-3 record would indicate, but one will leave Saturday with that mark.

UCLA's defense has been stellar all season and the physical brand of football the Bruins prefer gave the typically prolific Wildcat offense fits for long stretches against both BYU and Washington. While Arizona ranked as one of the nation's worst defenses in 2015, coordinator Marcel Yates has turned the Wildcats around in short order. They are playing with more aggression, particularly up front — which will be of particular importance against UCLA's multifaceted rushing attack.

Saturday's affair should be one of the most competitive played between Jim Mora- and Rich Rodriguez-coached teams, but the end result is likely to remain the same.

Prediction: UCLA 27, Arizona 21

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.