TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — Arizona is at the tail end of one of the most brutal stretches in college football this season.
In previous years, five straight games against ranked opponents would have likely led to five straight lopsided losses.
This year's team, building on the foundation set in two seasons under coach Jedd Fisch, has handled the difficult stretch well. After two close losses to start the ranked-team gauntlet, the Wildcats are coming off consecutive wins over AP Top 25 teams heading into Saturday's game against No. 20 UCLA.
"You’ve got to be a good team to be able to overall win. As we continue to grow, I think we’ll get better and better and better," Fisch said. "More players will then tell the younger players this is how we do things. This is how we act. This is how we talk, this is how we practice.”
It's been a quick turnaround in the desert under Fisch, from one win to a win away from bowl eligibility in three seasons.
Arizona (5-2, 3-2 Pac-12) lost by seven to No. 5 Washington in its first game against a ranked team and took No. 24 Southern California to triple overtime in a loss the next week.
The Wildcats followed that with a 38-point win at then-No. 19 Washington State and a 27-24 win over No. 16 Oregon State last week for their first consecutive wins over AP Top 25 teams since 2014.
Stretching it to three straight wins against ranked teams — which would be a first since 1992 — will not be easy.
UCLA (6-2, 3-2) has one of the nation's best defenses, ranking in the top 10 in multiple categories. The Bruins lead the FBS in rushing defense, allowing 63.1 yards per game, and have held three opponents under 30 yards.
UCLA is third nationally in sacks (3.88 per game), eighth in scoring defense (15 points) and 10th in total defense (277.5 yards). The Bruins had seven sacks against Colorado last week and held the Buffaloes to 25 yards rushing.
The success this season has come after Ikaika Malloe shifted to coaching the defensive line after serving as outside linebackers coach and special teams coordinator.
“Ikaika has done a great job taking over the whole front,” UCLA coach Chip Kelly said. “He's a great teacher, he's really, really knowledgeable in the pass rush and is doing a great job.”
Arizona quarterback Jayden de Laura was cleared to play last week after missing three games with an ankle injury.
He didn't get the start because Noah Fifita is playing so well.
Forced into action when de Laura was injured against Stanford on Sept. 23, Fifita has been stellar in leading Arizona's offense. He has thrown for 1,221 yards and eight touchdowns with three interceptions while completing 76% of his passes in four starts.
Fifita was named the Pac-12 freshman of the week for the third time this season after hitting 25 of 32 passes for 275 yards and three touchdowns against Oregon State, including two in the fourth quarter to Michael Wiley.
Fifita will likely face a night of pressure against UCLA's elite edge rushers.
Laiatu Latu, Gabriel Murphy and Grayson Murphy are top 10 nationally in quarterback pressures with 121. Behind the trio, UCLA has 212 quarterback pressures — most in the FBS, according to Pro Football Focus — and 31 sacks, fourth nationally.
Arizona allowed a season-high four sacks against Oregon State last week.
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