No. 16 UCLA (6-2, 3-2 Pac-12) vs. Arizona (6-2, 3-2)
Location: Arizona Stadium, Nov. 9, 7 p.m. PT
TV: ESPN (Joe Tessitore, Matt Millen, Maria Taylor)
Radio: 570 AM (Chris Roberts, Matt Stevens, Wayne Cook)
Last meeting: UCLA crushed Arizona 66-10, the most lopsided win in the all-time series. Running back Johnathan Franklin set the school’s career rushing mark with a 37-yard touchdown in the first quarter, and he Bruins’ led 42-3 at the half.
Key storylines: The Bruins haven’t won in Tucson since 2003, when they rallied back from an 11-point halftime deficit to win 24-21. Also, this happened the last time they went to the Zona Zoo.
Most players aren’t thinking much about the past, which is unsurprising considering both the team’s youth and the coaching change. This will be Jim Mora’s first game at Arizona, and I’d take him to break the streak — even if Vegas’ has the Wildcats as a 1.5-point favorite right now.
Likely weighing more heavily on the Bruins’ psyche are their losses at Oregon and Stanford, games that both appeared winnable at least for certain stretches. UCLA is still very much a notch below the conference’s top tier, but remains in control of its postseason destiny. Win out, and it’ll earn a third straight Pac-12 championship berth and a potential rematch with the Cardinal. The Bruins have some margin for error moving forward, but dropping a road game against an inferior team would be a gut punch to their chances.
Preseason rankings are also giving UCLA some inertia in the polls. The Bruins put up huge numbers early in the season, but their win against Nebraska looks less impressive now. Their road win at Utah was gutsy, but doesn’t impress voters two or three time zones east. Lose to the unranked Wildcats, and they could sink.
Arizona has surprisingly kept itself tight in the Pac-12 South race, and will prove itself a legitimate contender if it can knock off UCLA. Assuming a split against Washington State and Oregon following that, the Wildcats could end up playing Arizona State to decide the division.
Key players: Ka’Deem Carey is an excellent running back. (He knows it too, brashly declaring his All-American status to campus police at a basketball game in January.) He leads the country in rushing yards per game, and hasn’t dipped into double digits in any outing since last year’s loss at the Rose Bowl.
That game was a bit of an anomaly. After Arizona fell into a massive hole against UCLA, it couldn’t Since then, however, Carey has averaged 180.6 yards through 11 games, scoring 20 touchdowns along the way.
“You don’t necessarily bottle up Ka’Deem Carey,” Mora said. “You try to limit his explosive plays against you. You don’t lead the nation in rushing — you don’t just stop those guys.”
Eric Kendricks’ return will help the Bruins there. Though their run defense suffered early against Colorado last weekend due mostly to lack of energy, the loss of their starting inside linebacker also took a significant chunk out of the front seven. The team’s leading tackler is still battling a myriad of ailments — shoulder sprain, bruised back, sore ankle — but bet on him to perform well unless he hurts something else.
Arizona quarterback B.J. Denker has been much more successful in his last four games than his first four, but still doesn’t inspire much confidence as a passer. He has seven touchdowns against one interception since the beginning of October, but has just one game with multiple touchdown passes this season. He does lead conference quarterbacks in rushing yards (563) and scores (11), so the Bruins will need to keep him contained.
Brett Hundley faces an opportunistic 3-3-5 defense that has markedly improved since adopting the scheme a year ago. Arizona is fourth in the conference with 12 interceptions, but has taken four of those back for touchdowns. That ties Northwestern and Nebraska for the national pick-six lead.
Safety Tra’Mayne Bondurant leads the team with three picks, but eight different Wildcats have at least one. Shaquille Richardson and Jourdon Grandon are the others with multiple interceptions; the former signed with UCLA in 2010, but was dismissed with his cousin, Paul Richardson, and Josh Shirley following an arrest on suspicion of felony theft.
Did you know?: Brett Hundley Sr. was an Arizona running back who lettered in 1986.
Prediction: The Bruins force B.J. Denker to beat them through the air, and the senior has his worst game since September. UCLA 42, Arizona 27.