UCLA aims to build on its historic comeback, while Arizona tries to open Pac-12 play on the right foot
No matter what happens the rest of this college football season, there will not be another comeback as shocking as UCLA's from a 32-point deficit last week at Washington State.
Consider that last week's remarkable rally wasn't even the most lopsided deficit UCLA overcame in the last three seasons; the Bruins opened 2017 coming back from a 44-10 disadvantage against a Texas A&M team headed up by the coach of their upcoming opponent, Kevin Sumlin. What's more, it's best to never underestimate the ability of Pac-12 After Dark to bring chaos to college football.
So UCLA returns to action for its encore at Arizona, looking to build on the positive trajectory. The Wildcats are coming off a bye week, having won impressively in the fourth quarter their last time out, too. Arizona used a 99-yard drive without a single pass play to take down Texas Tech.
UCLA at Arizona
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 28 at 10:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Arizona -6.5
When UCLA Has the Ball
In one-and-a-half-quarters, UCLA went from having the most anemic offense in the Pac-12, to the most dangerous. Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson showed why he was the nation's most highly recruited dual-threat prospect in the 2018 signing class, scorching Washington State for 507 passing yards, 57 rushing, and seven total touchdowns.
Thompson-Robinson's heroics wouldn't have been possible without outstanding play from those around him. Receivers Demetric Felton and Chase Cota both went over 100 yards, and tight end Devin Asiasi — who hurt Arizona in UCLA's one-point win last season at the Rose Bowl — provided a reliable, mid-range threat. The versatility displayed in the UCLA rotation of pass catchers marked a significant deviation from the first three weeks, and is a troubling development for Arizona defensive coordinator Marcel Yates' bunch.
Arizona struggled to adjust to the multifaceted passing looks shown in the season opener at Hawaii. The Wildcats regrouped effectively against Texas Tech's version of the air raid in Week 3, and they'll need more of the same against the suddenly resurgent Bruins. Turnover generation could be a big key. The Wildcats rank sixth in the nation in turnover margin, while UCLA sits at No. 82 and on the negative side.
Should the Bruins establish Joshua Kelley early, Thompson-Robinson will have better passing lanes. Kelley's coming off his most effective performance of 2019, and the breakout star of a season ago roughed up Arizona for 136 yards a season ago.
When Arizona Has the Ball
Defensive depth emerged as a pressing concern for UCLA through its first few games, and most notably in losses to San Diego State and Oklahoma. The Bruins have a bevy of talent in the starting rotation, but depth becomes an issue as games wear on. Arizona's veteran offensive line will aim to exploit that as it did successfully against Texas Tech.
Arizona's multi-dimensional look on the ground functions well behind that line. Gary Brightwell's stepped up as a reliable option with J.J. Taylor — the Pac-12's No. 2 returning rusher coming into 2019 — nursing an injury. Bam Smith provides a potent change-of-pace, but all eyes will be on dual-threat quarterback Khalil Tate. After Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts bolstered his Heisman Trophy resume gashing UCLA on the run in Week 3, Tate's explosive running ability should be a concern.
Tate rushed for 230 yards and two touchdowns against UCLA in 2017, which was Arizona's first win in the series since '11. Tate missed last season's meeting due to an ankle injury that hampered his rushing ability throughout the campaign. He's back to old form, however, leading the Wildcats with 238 rushing yards and an average of 7.4 yards per carry.
The return of the explosive running Tate of 2017 has meshed with the deep ball-throwing Tate of '18. UCLA's secondary has struggled with giving up explosive pass plays, yielding four of 30-plus yards, and three of 40 yards or more thus far on the season.
UCLA's historic comeback at Washington State could provide the platform for a breakthrough in Pac-12 play. The Bruins finally showed life on offense, more closely in line with expectations when heralded offensive guru Chip Kelly was hired as head coach. At the same time, UCLA is coming off surrendering 63 points in that win. The defense still has question marks that need addressing.
Arizona's in a similar situation. The Texas Tech win was impressive, and the defense looked arguably the best it has at any time in Marcel Yates' tenure. That needs to be more than an aberration if the Wildcats are going to slow this resurgent UCLA offense. At the same time, Arizona's built for a track meet. The combination of Khalil Tate's arm and legs present a challenge akin to Jalen Hurts in Week 3.
Prediction: Arizona 48, UCLA 35
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.