UCLA football to face surging Arizona in key conference showdown
Senior wide receiver Kyle Ford is pushed out of bounds against Colorado. A transfer from USC, Ford had three catches for 24 yards against the Buffaloes on Saturday. (Myka Fromm/Assistant Photo editor)
Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
By Jack Nelson
Nov. 2, 2023 5:26 p.m.
This post was updated Nov. 2 at 9:40 p.m.
The Wildcats were last seen as the underdogs against the Bruins.
Nearly a year removed from that reality – with a better record to their name – that still hasn’t changed.
But rarely does a record tell the truest tale, and this underdog is a perfect case study.
Entering the latter half of conference play, No. 19 UCLA football (6-2, 3-2 Pac-12) will head to the desert to take on Arizona (5-3, 3-2) at Arizona Stadium on Saturday night. The Bruins – currently in a four-way tie for fourth place in the Pac-12 – find themselves again needing a victory to keep a foot in the race to Las Vegas.
“We’ve got to come out firing,” said senior wide receiver Kyle Ford. “Sometimes we’ve come out a little slow, and obviously we take a minute to heat up. We can’t do that against good teams, especially teams like Arizona.”
The Wildcats weathered one of the toughest stretches in college football this season – a gauntlet of four consecutive opponents ranked in the top 20. And every time, they held their own.
After falling a touchdown short against then-No. 7 Washington and dropping a triple-overtime thriller to then-No. 9 USC, Arizona hit its stride, stringing together wins over then-No. 19 Washington State and then-No. 11 Oregon State.
At the heart of it all is a redshirt freshman who continues to answer the call.
Ever since an ankle injury forced former starting quarterback Jayden de Laura to exit Arizona’s Week 4 contest against Stanford, coach Jedd Fisch has turned to Noah Fifita. Under his direction, accuracy and consistency have become the norm, as Fifita has completed 75.8% of his passes for 11 touchdowns and three interceptions.
But with de Laura fully active in practice and Arizona yet to name a starter, UCLA has to plan for both – which coach Chip Kelly said essentially means preparing for the same player.
“When you look at the games, the playcalls don’t change,” Kelly said. “It’s not like one guy is a runaround guy, and the other guy is not a runaround guy. They both can beat you with their arms, and they both can beat you with their legs.”
The Bruins have also played musical chairs at quarterback, replacing freshman Dante Moore with redshirt junior Ethan Garbers after the former threw six interceptions and three touchdowns with a 45.5% completion percentage across the first three contests of Pac-12 play.
Garbers has offered a steady hand since taking over signal-calling duties against Stanford, completing 72.7% of his passes for four touchdowns through the air and one pick. His leadership abilities have taken center stage accordingly.
“Throughout practice, he pushes the tempo: ‘Hey, guys, let’s get going.’ Someone has a bad play, he’s encouraging them, he’s lifting him up,” said redshirt junior offensive lineman Bruno Fina. “He’s talking to the defense, the defense is coming and talking to him. So there’s a lot of energy building off each other right now.”
Fina – who grew up in Tucson attending Arizona football games – is part of the unit tasked with holding off the Wildcats’ No. 17-ranked rushing defense. For the run-heavy Bruin offense, it’ll be a far cry from the bottom-100 defenses of Stanford and Colorado.
Explosiveness on offense will be a luxury this time around.
“You turn on the big play tape of how many games they’ve played this year,” Kelly said. “There aren’t many.”