Every week throughout the season, we take a look back at the Arizona Wildcats’ previous game after re-watching it via the TV broadcast. Here are five key takeaways from the UA’s 20-17 victory over UCLA on Saturday:
1. GUNNELL, PART 1
It wasn’t a completely smooth ride for freshman quarterback Grant Gunnell, who made his first career start in place of the injured Khalil Tate. But no one expected it to be. Two things stood out most upon reviewing Gunnell’s performance: (1) He got better as the game went along; and (2) he never made a critical mistake. Gunnell missed some open receivers in the first quarter and finished the period 8 of 13. He finished the first half 17 of 29 – a 58.6% completion rate. In the second half, Gunnell went 12 of 15 – 80.0%. He was a perfect 8 for 8 in the fourth quarter – which began with Arizona trailing 17-13. There were some situations where Gunnell looked like a freshman. For example, on a second-quarter slant pass, Gunnell stared down Drew Dixon, enabling UCLA safety Stephan Blaylock to break on the ball and break up the pass. But that was about as close as Gunnell came to forcing a pass into coverage. He pulled the ball on zone reads when he was supposed to. He took a sack late instead of trying to do something risky. In short, he managed the game exceptionally well.
2. GUNNELL, PART 2
UCLA coach Chip Kelly said he found out about the quarterback change “10-15 minutes” before kickoff. That’s probably an exaggeration, considering that word began trickling out about 5:30 p.m. on social media. But it was a sudden shift for the Bruins’ defense, given how different Gunnell and Tate are in terms of playing style. UCLA adjusted by sending blitzes at Gunnell that it probably wouldn’t have thrown at Tate for fear that he’d break containment and dash through the secondary. On the first play of Arizona’s second series, for example, UCLA blitzed its inside linebackers while dropping its outside ’backers – who were lined up as if they’d rush – into zones in the flats. Gunnell missed Tayvian Cunningham on a short cross on that play. Later on that same possession, the Bruins ran that same look – and Gunnell connected with Stanley Berryhill III for 13 yards. Three plays later, UCLA rushed six and dropped a defensive tackle into a short zone. Gunnell’s pass got batted down. But he never seemed panicked and generally appeared to be on the same wavelength with offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone. Gunnell frequently would clap to get an indicator from the defense, then would look to the sideline for a play adjustment. The Gunnell-led offense produced just enough points to win.
3. FIELDS THE RUSHER
Kevin Sumlin on linebackers Colin Schooler, Tony Fields and Anthony Pandy: “Those guys are feeding off each other. ... They give our team juice.” pic.twitter.com/3LmtUijhQt— The Wildcaster (@TheWildcaster) September 29, 2019
During training camp, junior linebacker Tony Fields II talked about improving his game. He studied pass-rush techniques that Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa uses and worked after practice with UA graduate assistant Garrison Smith, a former NFL lineman. That work paid off handsomely against UCLA. Fields didn’t record a sack against the Bruins, but we credited him with four quarterback pressures. Two came in the fourth quarter, and they showed the tools Fields has added to his toolbox. On third-and-6 on the Bruins’ penultimate possession, Fields used a speed rush and a hand chop to zip around left tackle Sean Rhyan and hit QB Austin Burton, whose pass for Demetric Felton fell incomplete. The Bruins had to punt. On their last drive, on second-and-10, Fields bull-rushed Felton and smacked Burton just as he released the ball. That pressure resulted in Burton overthrowing Devin Asiasi in the end zone. Burton completed a 4-yard pass to Felton on third-and-10, and JJ Molson missed a 39-yard field-goal attempt that would have tied the score. Fields finished with 10 tackles and a pass breakup, but those numbers don’t fully illustrate his impact on the game.
4. THIS TIME IT’S PERSONNEL
Well, Arizona scored on a Brian Casteel whirling dervish of a play. Only, they didn't because his knee was down. Now Arizona is punting because Grant Gunnell got sacked. pic.twitter.com/FH1n9YtHbc— Christopher Boan (@cgboan) September 29, 2019
Each week we provide some notes on individual players, so here goes … RB Bam Smith’s highlight play was his 75-yard TD catch, but his best play was his 21-yard grab on third-and-9 from the UA 7 in the fourth quarter. Gunnell threw a back-shoulder pass, forcing Smith to contort his body to make the grab just inside the left sideline – with linebacker Lokeni Toailoa in close proximity. … It’s a shame Brian Casteel’s would-be 42-yard touchdown got called back, because he showed great determination in breaking two tackles and terrific speed in running away from the UCLA defense. … Center Josh McCauley had a rough first half – he was whistled for three penalties – but the veteran rebounded in the second and was instrumental in opening holes for Arizona’s runners. … DE Jalen Harris made a significant impact in the second quarter, disrupting a zone-read run, registering a sack and pressuring UCLA QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson. Late in the third quarter, Harris pressured Thompson-Robinson again and landed on his ankle, knocking him out of the game. Harris strangely did not have a major role in the fourth quarter. … DE JB Brown and safety Christian Young were among the Wildcats who shook off bad plays to make good ones within the same series. … Punter Matt Aragon had his best game as a Wildcat. We credited him with 4.73 seconds of hang time on his final punt, a 47-yarder that pinned UCLA at its 9. Freshman long snapper Seth MacKellar hustled downfield to make the tackle.
5. BOULDER DRAMA
Arizona heads to Colorado for its first Pac-12 road game of 2019, and there’s no shortage of storylines. Atop the list: Who’s going to play quarterback? Kevin Sumlin didn’t have that answer late Saturday night, and he might not definitively know until game time. Tate undoubtedly would like to make a return appearance at Folsom Field, where he launched his career and changed the course of UA football in October 2017. As much as we all would like to know the identity of the Wildcats’ starter, it serves no purpose for Sumlin to show his cards. By keeping it a secret, he can force the Buffaloes to prepare for two quarterbacks whose games are nothing alike. If it happens to be Gunnell, he’ll have a full game against a conference opponent to draw from – and, even more important, his teammates and coaches know he can get the job done. “Going on the road’s different with some younger guys,” Sumlin said after the game. “But I think those guys walk away as a team with confidence.”