Tucson, AZ (SportsNetwork.com) - In the first contest of an important three- game homestand, the Arizona Wildcats will get a chance to make a national statement against the No. 16 UCLA Bruins, as the two teams meet for a Pac-12 brawl at Arizona Stadium.
After suffering losses, both on the road, to No. 6 Stanford (24-10) and No. 2 Oregon (42-14), UCLA finally got back in the win column last weekend against Colorado. Brett Hundley looked much more like himself in the victory as he accounted for 345 yards and four total touchdowns to lift the Bruins to a 45-23 triumph.
"The kid has looked burdened the last two weeks. He didn't look burdened tonight," UCLA head coach Jim Mora said referring to Hundley after the game. "It's just maturing as a football player and quarterback and experiencing things and learning and growing from them. He is still a young quarterback. We ask him to do a lot of things out here."
With the win the Bruins moved to 6-2 overall, marking another bowl eligible season, while pushing them back above .500 in conference play (3-2).
Arizona would very much like to unseat the Bruins and force their way into the national rankings this weekend.
"It's a big game. You could say they're all important and they all count as one, and that's true. But when it's a ranked team, you're home, and there's a lot at stake," Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez said.
The Wildcats survived what could have been an embarrassing loss on the road against California last weekend but pulled out the 33-28 victory. The win was the third straight for the Wildcats, who are suddenly 6-2 overall and tied with UCLA and USC for second in the Pac-12 South Division.
If Arizona wants to top the Bruins it will need to be much better than last year when UCLA pounded the Wildcats in a 66-10 victory. The win increased the Bruins' all-time series lead to 20-15-2.
"It's painful to watch but we have to. We didn't play well, and they played well so it was a very poor performance on our part," Rodriguez said about reviewing the film from the loss. "We have to watch it to learn what we need to get better at and how they may attack us."
A rejuvenated Hundley is certainly something that UCLA needs if it hopes to compete for the Pac-12 title. Hundley was limited to just 64 yards passing against Oregon and was intercepted four times and sacked on seven instances combined between the contests with Stanford and the Ducks. Those types of numbers are not commonplace for the sophomore quarterback, who has thrown for 1,998 yards and 16 touchdowns on an impressive 68.2 percent passing. However the interceptions have begun to mount with eight this year. Hundley is always a threat on the ground as well with 431 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns.
Another positive development for the Bruins in the win over Colorado was the return of leading rusher Jordon James (471 yards, five TDs). James had missed three games with an injury and although he had just eight yards on six carries, having him back in the lineup is a real boost for the team.
Hundley has been effective in spreading the ball around to his receivers this season. Devin Fuller (34 receptions, 417 yards, four TDs) and Shaquelle Evans (30 receptions, 406 yards, five TDs) are the two top options. Jordan Payton (24 receptions, 314 yards, TD) also gets his number called at times.
All-American Anthony Barr (43 tackles, 13.0 TFL, 6.0 sacks) has continued to be the defensive force up front for the Bruins after his breakout campaign a year ago. He leads the team in tackles for loss and sacks by a wide margin. Keenan Graham (5.0 sacks) is another solid pass rusher, while leading tackler Eric Kendricks is listed as questionable again this week with a shoulder injury. In all, the Bruins are allowing just 22.5 points and 386.8 yards of offense per game.
Running the ball is the first, second and often the third option for the Wildcats. Arizona is second in the Pac-12 in rushing yards (275.4 ypg) and an impressive 12th nationally.
It's easy to run the ball when you have the nation's leading rusher. Arizona is fortunate enough to have that player in Ka'Deem Carey. The Arizona running back has piled up 1,072 yards and 10 yards on 188 carries and despite missing time earlier in the year, leads the country with an average of 153.1 yards per game. It was just another day at the office for Carey against California as he had 152 yards on a season-high 32 carries. Carey has rushed for at least 110 yards in every game this season.
Supplementing the run-first mentality and the production of Carey is quarterback B.J. Denker, who is just as much a threat on the ground (563 yards, 11 TDs) as he is through the air (1,502 yards, nine TDs). Denker rushed for three touchdowns against California and in the previous week had 192 yards rushing on 15 carries. Denker is still polishing his passing game as he is completing less than 60 percent of his throws, but he has kept his interceptions down with just three errant passes.
Relying so heavily on the run has not opened up much of an opportunity for Wildcats receivers. Nate Phillips (21 receptions, 312 yards, four TDs) is the team leader in yards, while Samajie Grant (33 receptions, 255 yards, TD) is the top player in terms of receptions.
Arizona has actually been a step ahead of the Bruins in terms of total defense, allowing 372.9 yards per game, which ranks fifth in the Pac-12. Scooby Wright (60 tackles, 7.5 TFL) leads the way as the top tackler for the unit, while Tra'Mayne Bondurant (36 tackles, three INTs) consistently makes plays on the ball in coverage.