Travis Wilson visited the Rose Bowl last October, making his first start as a college quarterback as Utah offensive struggles of 2012 continued against UCLA.
After making steady improvement in the year since then, Wilson regressed Thursday. The sophomore QB was not entirely to blame for UCLA’s six interceptions, but his turnovers and the offense’s inefficiency in the second half cost the Utes a great chance to upset the No. 12 Bruins. UCLA’s 34-27 victory at Rice-Eccles Stadium required a nice response from quarterback Brett Hundley after an interception-return touchdown enabled Utah to tie the game in the fourth quarter. Remarkably, cornerback Keith McGill provided the Utes’ only touchdown of the second half.
Utah’s field goal and onside-kick recovery gave the Utes one last opportunity in the last two minutes, but Wilson threw his sixth interception on fourth down from the UCLA 23-yard line.
This would have made a great story, that’s for sure. Wilson is playing this season in honor of Nick Pasquale, his best friend and former high school teammate in San Clemente, Calif. The UCLA receiver was killed in early September when a car struck him as he walked along a street in their hometown. Each player’s parents traveled together to Salt Lake City for the game.
With the annual Blackout promotion, a Thursday night television showcase and a highly ranked opponent, this game came complete with a big-time atmosphere. The contest also became an officiating circus, with all kinds of reviews, reversals and confusion — all while Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott watched from the press box.
Before any of this madness ensued, Scott toured Utah’s new football complex Thursday afternoon and was impressed. The facility “makes a big statement about the commitment and the seriousness Utah brings to football,” Scott said, citing “a lot of excitement and buzz about the program.”
Sustaining that level of enthusiasm at Rice-Eccles Stadium would likely require an upset of a Top 25 team, at some point. No. 12 UCLA’s arrival in town presented such an opportunity, as will visits by No. 5 Stanford next week and potentially No. 22 Arizona State next month.
The Bruins, who are “an explosive team and are fast, athletic and playing with a lot of confidence,” as Ute coach Kyle Whittingham said, represented Utah’s latest shot at a signature win.
Utah was not overwhelmed by UCLA, in any sense. But the Utes’ mistakes were magnified against a good team.
The Utes played aggressively both offensively and defensively. Wilson took several chances with narrow passing windows, threading a 6-yard touchdown pass to Sean Fitzgerald to give the Utes a 14-7 lead late in the first quarter. But on Utah’s next drive, Wilson’s risky pass was deflected and intercepted, leading to a UCLA touchdown.
Utah defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake was just as bold. The Utes’ aggressive approach with multiple blitzes resulted in three tackles for loss in the first half, but the pass-rushers often had trouble getting to Hundley. Missed tackles in the secondary also caused problems for Utah, with Jordan Payton breaking away from cornerback Davion Orphey for a second-quarter touchdown as the Bruins took a 21-17 halftime edge.
Three of Utah’s four drives in the third quarter ended with interceptions of Wilson. But Utah’s defense was brilliant in the third quarter. Pressure caused Hundley to make a bad throw early in the fourth quarter, resulting in McGill’s 19-yard interception return for a touchdown and a 24-24 tie.
UCLA responded with a field goal, followed by Hundley’s 36-yard TD run.
That was a rare second-half lapse by Utah’s defense in the second half, accomplishing one thing: Wilson would not have to absorb all of the blame.