This one is a critical football game for both UA and UCLA

Wherever the Arizona Wildcats football team is going to end up this season, there is one thing for sure right now… they’re in a big hurry to get there.

The Cats (5-3) are moving the chains at the rate of 31 first downs per game, ranked No. 2 in the nation in that category.  Only Texas Tech is ahead of them, with just over 32 first downs each outing.

They’re gobbling up the yardage and running up the points, but aren’t bowl eligible yet.  A three-game skid that began in late September – all conference games – derailed the momentum they had built from a three-game winning streak to start the season.

But despite that disastrous opening to the Pac-12 schedule, the Cats’ win over No.10 USC last week gives them new life in the South division.  If Arizona (2-3) beats UCLA (3-2) Saturday night, and Oregon handles USC, the Cats will have regained control of their own fate.

Oregon will likely do its part in the equation.  But Arizona is faced with a team that features one of the more explosive offenses in the country, has lost just two games this season, and has a sack-hungry defense that is ranked sixth nationally in that category.

The Bruins knocked off Arizona State last week, a team which also features a hurry-up offensive system that puts points on the board on a regular basis.  The shoot-out ended with a 45-43 UCLA win in Tempe that spoiled the Devils’ Homecoming – despite the fact that ASU had four more first downs (29) and more yards on the ground (220-212).

The Sun Devils ran 94 plays in that game, 16 more than the Bruins, and had 535 yards of total offense, 49 more than their opponents.

But UCLA still prevailed.

Saturday’s match-up will pit two ranked teams, with both just squeezing into the Associated Press Top 25 this week.  Arizona is ranked No. 24 and UCLA is No. 25.

Both teams have new head coaches.  Rich Rodriguez became Arizona’s 18th head coach after Mike Stoops was let go last year; he comes in from Michigan where he was fired after a 15-22 record in three years as the Wolverines boss, but before that went 60-26 at West Virginia and won four conference crowns there.  Jim Mora is UCLA’s 17th head coach, entering his first full season as a college head coach after spending his career in the NFL.

The Wildcats have won the last five against their Pac-12 rival, last year scoring on their first six possessions in a 48-12 rout in Tucson.  But all that means nothing now, since both teams have new head coaches with new systems, and both teams also feature new quarterbacks.

Arizona’s starting QB is a fifth-year senior, but this is his first full season at the controls.  Matt Scott was the starter in 2009, but lost his job to Nick Foles, who went on to become one the better signal callers in the country and kept the job right through 2011.  Scott replaced him a couple of times when injury forced Foles from the game, and did very well in those games.  But, to get a shot at being the starter again, Scott redshirted last year, which would have been his senior season.

The move paid off for Scott – and for the fortunate Rodriguez, who inherited a quarterback ideally suited to his fast-paced spread offense.  Scott has passed for 2,724 yards this season, which leads all Pac-12 quarterbacks and ranks him third on the national list.  A dual-threat quarterback, he is averaging 386 yards of total offense a game, which puts him second nationally.

UCLA will counter with a freshman quarterback.  Brett Hundley, who played last year at Chandler High School but got away from Arizona recruiters, is having an outstanding first year.

Hundley threw his 18th touchdown against ASU last week, which broke the school’s freshman record of 17 that has stood since 1990.  He finished with 274 yards and four touchdowns against the Sun Devils and engineered a long drive that covered the final 1:33 of the game and set up the winning field goal as time expired.

The running game will put Arizona’s featured back, Ka’Deem Carey, up against UCLA’s Johnathan Franklin.

Franklin, a senior,  is the leading rusher in the Pac-12 conference and will likely claim the UCLA career rushing record on Saturday; he’s just 20 yards shy of the mark.

Carey is a sophomore running back, a local fan favorite from nearby Canyon del Oro High School, who ranks third in the conference this season with 120.1 rushing yards per game; he’s had six games this season with 100 or more yards.  He’s averaging 5.3 yards per carry, but is also a pass threat, gaining 9.6 yards per reception.

Both backs were put on this season’s Maxwell Award watch list.  The award is given annually to the individual considered the best college football player in the country.

And they will both be on the field Saturday in the Rose Bowl, leading a couple of teams that are evenly matched, score lots of points, and desperately needing this conference victory.  To turn the drama up a notch, each is directed by first-year coaches trying to prove they were the right hire for the job.

What else do you need to make this a great college football game?

(Photo: Arizona Athletics)