UCLA vs. Arizona: Key story lines as Bruins take on Wildcats

 UCLA head coach Chip Kelly stares down Bruins wide receiver Kam Brown.
UCLA coach Chip Kelly stares down Bruins receiver Kam Brown during a timeout against Arizona State on Oct. 2 at the Rose Bowl.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Weird things happen to UCLA in the desert. Karl Dorrell, Rick Neuheisel and Jim Mora could tell you some stories. Losses to mediocre Arizona teams in 2007, 2011 and 2017 at Arizona Stadium were among their final acts as Bruins coaches. That’s a possible repeat scenario that Chip Kelly hopes doesn’t play out on the ESPN broadcast at 7:30 p.m. Saturday. Kelly’s Bruins (3-2 overall, 1-1 Pac-12) will face the Wildcats (0-4, 0-1) while trying to steady themselves from a bad stumble against Arizona State. UCLA is favored by 16 points, which might not matter if more madness ensues at a place where the Bruins have lost two games in a row and six of their last eight.

Times staff writer Ben Bolch looks at the game’s matchups and story lines:


A real coach killer

UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel talks on his headset during a blowout loss to Arizona on Sept. 24, 2011, in Tucson, Ariz..
(Wily Low / Associated Press)

The most embarrassing part of UCLA’s 48-12 loss to Arizona in 2011 wasn’t the score. Six Bruins players were later suspended in the wake of a brawl that started shortly after a fan dressed as a referee ran onto the field after a play. The fake referee motioned for a real counterpart to throw him the football and when that failed, removed his clothes and ran across the field.

Neuheisel was fired a little more than a month later.

Dorrell suffered a similar fate in 2007 after a midseason road loss to Arizona. Stunningly, it wasn’t his biggest desert humiliation. That came in 2005, when his unbeaten team got flattened during a 52-14 loss to the team with the worst offense in the Pac-10. The headline in The Los Angeles Times the next day said it all: “Bruins in ruins.”

Mora’s team gave up 605 yards to the Wildcats in a 2017 defeat at Arizona Stadium, prompting UCLA linebacker Kenny Young to question his teammates’ commitment. Mora was out of a job before the end of the next month.


A winless worry?

Oregon safety Bennett Williams dives to make an interception in front of Arizona's Josh McCauley (50) and Donovan Laie (78).
Oregon safety Bennett Williams dives to make an interception in front of Arizona offensive linemen Josh McCauley (50) and Donovan Laie (78).
(Andy Nelson / Associated Press)


Arizona hasn’t won a game this season. That doesn’t mean the Wildcats aren’t dangerous.

They’ve outgained three of their four opponents in yardage and were in the games late against nationally-ranked Oregon and Brigham Young.

So what happened? A failure to score a touchdown in four red-zone opportunities against the Cougars and five interceptions against the Ducks doomed the Wildcats.

The Bruins appeared to understand they could lose to anyone on their schedule.

“We respect all and fear none,” UCLA linebacker Kain Medrano said. “So respect is given to every team that we go out there and play, we just gotta go out there and play tough and fast. That’s our motto — tough, fast and finish.”


Secondary concerns are primary

Arizona State wide receiver Ricky Pearsall finds open ground out of the reach of UCLA defensive back Stephan Blaylock.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

The loss of UCLA safeties Quentin Lake and Kenny Churchwell III to unspecified injuries against Arizona State last week appeared to correspond with some significant passing success for the Sun Devils.


Lake and Churchwell participated in practice drills open to reporters this week, though it was not certain they would be cleared to play against Arizona.

Bruins cornerback Cam Johnson said the team’s failures last week could be blamed on a lack of success in individual matchups.

“It really came down to our one-on-one battles,” Johnson said, “because when you send pressure, you’ve got to win your one on ones.”


A fine line

UCLA offensive lineman Jon Gaines II (57) walks off the field with teammates
UCLA offensive lineman Jon Gaines II
(Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)

UCLA has averaged 227 yards rushing in the two games that Jon Gaines II started at center; it has averaged 173 yards in that category in the three games he started at guard.


UCLA lineman Jon Gaines II and his teammate hope their success helps his father secure a hard-to-find kidney donor that would massively improve his life.

Sept. 29, 2021


Kelly said he was pleased with the way Duke Clemens manned center last week after Sam Marrazzo — the starter at the position the previous two games — suffered an unspecified injury against Stanford. Kelly said playing Gaines at guard offered multiple benefits.

“He’s very athletic, he’s probably the most athletic guard we have,” Kelly said, “so we can do a lot of different things when Jon’s in there” at guard.