The shape of the PAC conference will come to light this weekend in a critical matchup between No. 11 UCLA Bruins and No. 14 Arizona Wildcats.
The winner of Saturday afternoon’s game will hold a better position in terms of keeping pace atop the conference with No. 1 California, with the loser being put at a large disadvantage moving forward into the season, in addition to potential D1A Top 20 rankings. With stakes this high both sides acknowledged up front the importance of the upcoming 80 minutes.
“This is a big game for us, UCLA is a quality opponent that we’ve had close matches with the past two seasons,” Arizona head coach Sean Duffy said in reflection. “A lot has changed in my three years here and this will be a good match for us to potentially break through. It’s a vital game to conference standings as well with the PAC conference producing a team or teams to D1A playoffs.”
“They are a very committed team with talent and athleticism throughout their line-up and it will be our job to match them in those areas,” Bruins captain Niall Barry admitted. “We are looking forward to the challenge.”
History has been on UCLA’s side in recent memory. In 2015 the Bruins edged out a 31-29 victory from a last minute try; last year it was a slightly more comfortable 18-12 win for the Bruins, which could best be described by a defensive and gritty stalemate. Capitalizing on early miscues by the Wildcats, the Bruins broke out to an early 15-0 lead in the opening 12 minutes of play. Arizona responded late in the half with scores by fullback Tyler Sousley and Tyler Hanson, making it 15-12 heading in to the final 40 minutes. An early penalty kick by UCLA would prove to be the final score in the contest, with the bulk of the game becoming a whistle-ridden defensive battle. As a result neither team could effectively execute between constant penalties and improper lineouts.
With the added linger of a strategic win looming in the air, it would surprise no one if the same style of game will play out in Tucson. That not only goes for the men’s contest, but the women’s tilt was well in Los Angeles when the school’s teams square off on opposite campuses.
“UCLA is a fast, athletic team that plays with good tempo,” Duffy added. “They’re well coached and have good athletes that will punish your mistakes. We think we have some good athletes too so we’ll see what happens this Saturday in Tucson. Our Women’s team also has a match with UCLA so this is going to be a nice doubleheader for both universities at Sitton Field.
Coming in to Tucson, UCLA previously ran away against Arizona State midway through the second half. With the score locked 15-15, a successful conversion by Daniel Thomas gave the lead to the Bruins for good en route to three more successful tries and conversions in the 60th minute. Before the team hit their stride in the second half however, Barry noted that travel might have been to blame for their sluggish start.
He also added that excuse will not fly against Arizona.
“It’s never easy traveling that many hours in the bus, but we know we cannot use that as an excuse to not show up match ready,” he said. “They are a strong opponent and the first 20 minutes will be important for both teams.”
The Wildcats meanwhile are coming off a tough loss against Cal. Held scoreless in the opening half, Arizona could not generate points on the board until the second, and by then the game was well in hand for the opposition. Coach Duffy mentioned his squad left a lot on the field, and that the team has spent the time since that Jan. 21 loss focusing on those miscues. In such a crucial game in terms of standings, Arizona wants that to translate to setting an early tempo.
“Cal was a tough game, we felt we left points on the board and credit to them for the game they played,” Duffy said. “We have corrected mistakes since then, and we’ve had a great two weeks of training since then, with guys motivated to get in to situations against quality teams and execute this time around.”
Regardless of key plans and strategy on the field, execution will be the main factor in what may be on of the more intensifying games this year.