UA football vs. UCLA: Five things to watch - Tucson News Now

UA football vs. UCLA: Five things to watch

By Anthony Gimino / Special for Tucson News Now

There could be clarity -- well, maybe a teeny, tiny bit -- in the Pac-12 South by late Saturday night.

Arizona plays at UCLA at 7:30 p.m., and Utah is at Arizona State at 8 p.m.

Coach Rich Rodriguez doesn't bother to hide the fact it's a big game for his 14th-ranked Wildcats, who are taking on a UCLA team that has performed under expectations on its way to a 6-2 record and a No. 25 ranking in the AP poll.

"I think any player wants that big stage," Rodriguez said. "I told the team, it's the big stage. It's Saturday night in a big stadium, they're breaking out new uniforms. It's national TV. I think they can sense it."

Arizona is 3-1 in the Pac-12, in control of its destiny in the division race. UCLA -- picked by multiple national pundits before the season to advance to the inaugural College Football Playoff -- is 3-2 in the league play fighting to stay relevant in the conference.

Here are five things to watch:

1. Anu Solomon being Anu Solomon

You would hate to be the person trying to scare Anu Solomon on Halloween. Spiders? Zombies? A pop-up skeleton? What exactly would faze him?

Opponents are still trying to find the thing that frightens him on the football field. Mr. Cool strolled through the Autzen Stadium House of Horrors just fine earlier this season. So, while he has appropriate awe to be playing at the Rose Bowl for the first time -- "It's a dream come true," he said -- let's assume he'll end up treating it like another day on the practice field.

Solomon's never-panic style is his best intangible, and that was evident from the beginning, said former UA linebacker Jake Fischer, who saw Solomon running the scout team last year during his redshirt season.

"The coaches will tell you, when you learn how to get past the fact that they're yelling -- and when they're yelling, there's spit coming on your face -- and just take the constructive criticism, that is when you thrive," Fischer said. "And he was able to do that from day one."

2. Cam Denson's first start?

The true freshman from Salpointe Catholic played the majority of the Washington State game, filling in for cornerback Jarvis McCall, who is listed as questionable this week because of a shoulder injury.

"The more you play, the more you get familiar with the game, and the more you can trust yourself and gain confidence," Denson said. "Playing 95 plays in that game gave me a lot of confidence."

Denson last week made a good break on a back-shoulder pass intended for Cougars receiver Vince Mayle, picking off a pass from Connor Halliday. That came at the UA 32 early in the second quarter, and Rodriguez called it "one of the bigger plays of the game."

The coaches have liked Denson's competitive edge from the start, but it's been an adjustment for him to get used to the speed of the college game and the strength of the opposing receivers as he plays exclusively defense after doing it all last season for the state champion Lancers.

Ready or not, Denson's time might be Saturday night.

"If he's pressed into duty and he has to play a whole lot of plays, he'll compete," Rodriguez said.

3. UCLA's freaks

The Bruins' Eric Kendricks and Myles Jack might be the best linebacker duo in the country.

"They're freaks of nature," Solomon said. "We just have to beat their athleticism by going fast."

Kendricks has led the team in tackles in every game; he had 13 vs. Arizona last season in a 31-26 victory. Jack had eight tackles, a fumble recovery, broke up two passes and vaulted into superstar territory against UA by moonlighting on offense with six rushes for 120 yards and a touchdown.

His time at running back has been more limited this season, but UCLA will still use him in short-yardage situations.

"They're as athletic as probably anyone in the country," Rodriguez said of Kendricks and Jack.

"But they're not the only ones. This might be the most athletic team, period, but particularly defensively, that we've played all year. They have speed on the edges; they have big guys who can move. They'll do some exotic blitzes and change the front up a lot."

UCLA has loads of 300-pounders on the line, which helps keep blockers off Kendricks and Jack. Arizona's task is for its offensive linemen to be able to make blocks in the second level on running plays.

"Half the time, they're never even blocked," Fischer said of the two star linebackers. "So that's nice. That would be a very nice life."

Speaking of physical freaks, watch for UCLA defensive lineman Owamagbe Odighizuwa, who can play inside or outside. Like Rodriguez said, raw athleticism is not the Bruins' problem. Their issues have more to do with adjusting to a new coordinator this season -- Jeff Ulbrich -- and a more conservative style that has contributed to UCLA ranking 111th out of 125 teams in sacks (1.25 per game).

4. Brett Hundley

Oh, yeah. Hundley. The Heisman candidacy for the UCLA quarterback never took off this season, and the junior's draft stock has been sullied slightly by what evaluators see as a lack of pocket presence and knowledge of when to get rid of the ball.

That could very well be true and still not matter because he's perfectly capable of taking over a game with his arm or his legs. He's the image of a modern dual-threat quarterback.

The legs are the scary part. His ability to make something out of nothing can be a back-breaker for the defense.

"If we bottle him up and make him a pocket passer, we'll win," Fischer said.

5. Home-field advantage

What home-field advantage? Arizona is 3-0 on the road this season, including conference wins at Oregon and Washington State, while UCLA is 0-2 at home in the league, losing to Utah and Oregon.

The Bruins are debuting their new alternate uniforms -- dubbed "LA Steel" -- and while a uniform never made a tackle or completed a pass, the new look will probably at least generate some initial excitement for a night game on Homecoming weekend.

The atmosphere should be electric, a boost to UCLA and not the worst thing in the world for Arizona, which has embraced the appropriate us-against-the-world mentality away from home.

Either way, should be fun.

PREDICTION

Here's a stat, courtesy of ESPN: Arizona and UCLA have each won four games by seven points or fewer, the most such victories in the FBS.

With a close-game trend like that, who can say what's going to happen with any degree of certainty?

UCLA has underachieved, especially up front on both lines, but player for player, you'd still take the Bruins.

UCLA has its back to the wall and, I suspect, isn't ready to count this season as a lost opportunity. I wouldn't be surprised at all if this is the Bruins' best effort of the season.

That's what it will take to beat Arizona. Anything less, and the 60-minute Wildcats will win another one.

UCLA 34, Arizona 31.

Anthony Gimino has covered University of Arizona athletics for more than two decades, including as the football beat writer for the Arizona Daily Star and the columnist for the Tucson Citizen.

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