For a fleeting moment, UCLA’s defense finally had Arizona quarterback Grant Gunnell in its grasp.
With the Bruins leading by four in the fourth quarter Saturday, senior linebacker Lokeni Toailoa had burst through Arizona’s offensive line and into the backfield. He wrapped his hands around Gunnell, the true freshman thrust into his first career start with senior Khalil Tate out injured. For a split-second, it looked like he would drag the signal-caller down and spare his defensive backs from another aerial attack.
But then Gunnell slipped away, stepped up in the pocket, and sliced UCLA’s spotty secondary to shreds again. As with most of his throws Saturday night, the Bruins offered little resistance through the air. Of all their blemishes in a 20-17 loss to Arizona, the porous pass defense made maybe the ugliest skid mark.
UCLA blew coverages and suffered breakdowns in communication. It left Wildcat receivers wide open and missed tackles in the open field. It made Gunnell look like a seasoned veteran, allowing him to complete 29 of 44 passes for 352 yards and a touchdown. It was an issue for which coach Chip Kelly couldn’t offer a specific postgame fix.
“It’s a process,” Kelly said of UCLA’s secondary, which was without injured junior safety Quentin Lake on Saturday.
“We’ve got some young guys that are getting significant snaps but we knew that going into the season and that’s not an excuse. It’s just, those guys that are playing, we have to execute at a better level.”
After escaping Toailoa’s sack in the fourth quarter, Gunnell found receiver Cedric Peterson for a gain of 27. It was one of Gunnell’s eight completions of 15 yards or more and extended a drive that would lead to Arizona’s eventual game-winning touchdown.
“You have to pick your poison,” said Kelly, the only member of UCLA’s coaching staff made available for comment following the game. “You’re going to play man [coverage] and sometimes that’s where more big plays occur. And then do you cushion off and play zone? So I think you have to mix it up a little bit more and make sure you keep the quarterback off balance.”
Nothing UCLA tried Saturday, however, seemed to work.
The Bruins learned during pre-game warm-ups that Tate, a dual-threat senior who terrorized UCLA in 2017 but was hurt for their meeting last season, wouldn’t play because of a reported hamstring injury. Though Gunnell, a Houston-native ranked as a three-star recruit, according to 247Sports, profiles as a more traditional pocket passer, senior linebacker Krys Barnes said the Bruins’ defense made only minor tweaks to its game plan.
“It doesn’t matter who we’re playing,” Barnes said.
Which, in one sense, was true. Even against an inexperienced gunslinger, the Bruins were picked apart all the same.
Gunnell completed 13 of his first 18 throws, including seven in a row at one point. He was even better in the second half, connecting on 12 of 15 tosses for 182 yards. On third downs, he was 7-for-12 with 80 yards.
The biggest back-breaker came early in the third quarter. UCLA’s offense started the half with a 17-play field-goal drive to extend its lead to 10-6. But when Wildcats running back Darrius Smith ran a wheel route out of a shotgun formation on the first play of the ensuing drive, the Bruins’ pass defense lost him. Though they dropped eight into a zone coverage, no one picked up Smith. Gunnell lobbed him the ball for an easy 75-yard touchdown pass.
“That wasn’t the end of the game,” Kelly said, “but that was a critical point in the game and we just can’t give up big plays like that.”
Yet, on Saturday, the Bruins surrendered such strikes all night.
During Arizona’s second drive in the third quarter, receiver Jamarye Joiner hauled in a 14-yard screen pass after UCLA defensive backs Darnay Holmes and Stephan Blaylock got canceled out by the same block. Three plays later, on a third and eight, an apparent miscommunication between defensive back Rayshad Williams and Toailoa left Arizona receiver Thomas Reid III uncovered for a first down.
“We could have done a better job,” Barnes said. “Communication around the board with the DBs and the front seven, we’ve got to elevate our game there.”
UCLA’s secondary has been shaky all season. Entering Saturday, it ranked 127 out of 130 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in passing yards allowed per game. Last week, Washington State exploded for 570 yards through the air against the Bruins.
Still, UCLA’s latest letdown looked like a new low point. Instead of taking advantage of facing a true freshman quarterback, its secondary was a key culprit in a loss that erased any momentum from its comeback over the Cougars a week prior.
“[We are] just not honing in on what we’ve got to do pre-snap to see where our reads are, and things like that,” Barnes said. “Once we get that dialed in, we’ll be much better off.”