No. 19 UCLA can’t let its guard down vs. Arizona

Field Level Media

November 01, 2023 at 10:09 am.

Arizona is looking for its third consecutive victory over a ranked team but will have to solve No. 19 UCLA’s chaos-creating defense when the teams meet Saturday night in Tucson, Ariz.

The Wildcats (5-3, 3-2 Pac-12) will be trying to make a claim of their own for the Top 25 if they knock off the Bruins (6-2, 3-2), who are 10th nationally in total defense (277.5 yards allowed per game), third in sacks (3.88 per game) and fourth in tackles for loss (8.2).

This will be the toughest defensive test for Arizona redshirt freshman quarterback Noah Fifita, who so far has been up to the challenge while starting the first four games of his career against ranked teams, including Washington and Southern California. He has been calm and accurate, completing 111 of 149 passes for 1,152 yards with 11 touchdowns and three interceptions in those four starts.

Fifita has earned the Pac-12 Freshman of the Week award in each of his past three outings, which includes wins at then-No. 19 Washington State and vs. then-No. 11 Oregon State.

“He’s continuing to go out there and impress,” Arizona coach Jedd Fisch said. “Noah certainly has gotten the accolades and that’s fantastic for Noah; he deserves it. He’s completed over 70 percent of his passes in each game, and I expect him to continue to get better.”

Fifita will have to navigate a UCLA defense that includes defensive ends Laiatu Latu (9.5 sacks, 13 tackles for loss) and Gabriel Murphy (five sacks, 11 tackles for loss).

The Bruins remain a bit of a mystery at quarterback. Ethan Garbers has started the past two games against Stanford and Colorado, replacing true freshman Dante Moore. Garbers has completed 40 of 55 passes with 509 yards, with four touchdowns and an interception in the past two games.

UCLA coach Chip Kelly said early in the week that he wasn’t ready to commit to naming Garbers a starter against Arizona.

“We analyze everything during the week. We don’t make anything rash after a game and say, ‘Hey, this is what tomorrow is going to be like, or what Wednesday is going to be like.'” Kelly said. “We won’t finalize anything until we get to the game day next week.”

No matter who is at quarterback, UCLA can lean on a strong running game, led by Carson Steele and T.J. Harden. Steele has rushed for 674 yards and six touchdowns on 124 carries. Harden has 466 yards and five scores on 88 attempts.

UCLA’s two losses — at Utah and at Oregon State — were by a combined 19 points. Arizona’s three losses — at Mississippi State (overtime), Washington, at USC (triple overtime) — were decided by a total of 16 points.

“They’ve done a really good job,” Kelly said of Arizona. “We’re very well aware of what Arizona’s doing, but I think a lot of people in the country are too.”

For sure, Arizona won’t catch UCLA by surprise. The Wildcats, in something of a foreshadowing for this season’s surge, upset the then-No. 9 Bruins 34-28 in Pasadena, Calif., on Nov. 12, 2022.

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