UCLA once looked like an easy win for Utah, but Chip Kelly is beginning to work his magic

(Marcio Jose Sanchez | AP) UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, shown running against Arizona State, will face Utah on Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium after missing last year's loss to the Utes due to injury,

UCLA lost badly to Oregon State in early October, creating mild concern about how Utah's football team would perform against OSU the following week.

That didn’t turn out to be a problem for the Utes, who won 52-7 in Corvallis, Ore. Yet the way UCLA has played since losing to the Beavers will make No. 8 Utah (8-1, 5-1 Pac-12) take the Bruins seriously Saturday night at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

“They have some momentum … they’re a confident team — at least, it appears that way,” Ute coach Kyle Whittingham said during his weekly news conference Monday.

That's how UCLA receiver Ethan Fernea came across last week, when he told reporters, “Utah's known for being a tough team, but I think we're ready to go out and show we're the tougher team.”

UCLA (4-5) has scored 31 or more points in beating Stanford, Arizona State and Colorado. The Bruins are 4-2 in the Pac-12 and would win the South title with victories over Utah, USC and California.

UCLA was readily dismissed after opening their schedule with losses to Cincinnati, San Diego State and Oklahoma, but those defeats have been more forgivable as the season progressed. All three teams were in the AP Top 25 last week, before SDSU dropped out, and Cincinnati and Oklahoma are contending for New Year’s Six bowl berths.

The Bruins’ loss to Oregon State is more inexplicable. But they’ve been a different team lately in coach Chip Kelly’s second season, as he tries to replicate his former success as Oregon’s coach. Sophomore quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson missed the OSU game with a recurring knee injury; he also was sidelined during UCLA’s 41-10 loss to Utah last year at the Rose Bowl.

Thompson-Robinson passed for 507 yards and five touchdowns in the Bruins' epic rally for a 67-63 win at Washington State in September. In the Bruins' most recent game, he completed 21 of 28 passes for 226 yards and two touchdowns against Colorado and is a running threat.

“Very athletic … a guy that can really extend the play,” Whittingham said of Thompson-Robinson. “He just makes things happen. He’s dynamic. He’s making good decisions throwing the football, but they’re a run-first team, as are all good spread offenses.”

The Utes know about running back Joshua Kelley, having faced him last season. Kelley gained 90 yards on 16 carries, including a 25-yard touchdown run that gave the Bruins a brief 7-3 lead.

Kelley missed UCLA's game at Cincinnati, but leads the Pac-12 with 861 rushing yards in eight games, including a 164-yard, four-touchdown effort against Arizona State. Utah's Zack Moss, who ran for a career-high 211 yards against the Bruins last season, has 828 yards in eight games. So that will be a good matchup of running backs, although they'll be competing against much different defenses.

Utah is No. 1 nationally in rushing defense and No. 3 in total defense. UCLA is No. 8 in the Pac-12 in total defense, although the Bruins are decent against the run.

“Typically, run yardage is more damaging than throw yardage to an opponent,” Whittingham said. “If you can just ram the ball down their throat, that can be demoralizing. So that's something we want to be a strong suit for us, to run the football and defend the run.”

Whittingham expects to field “a healthier team” Saturday, following Utah’s second bye week of the season (UCLA also was off). Ute quarterback Tyler Huntley should be close to 100 percent after playing with a leg injury and passing for 284 yards in a 33-28 victory at Washington on Nov. 2.

Offensive tackle Bamidele Olaseni, who made his first appearance of the season at Washington, left that game in the first quarter with an apparent shoulder injury. Utah can deploy Olaseni for three more games this season, without voiding a year’s eligibility. With three regular-season games remaining, plus a bowl game — and possibly the Pac-12 championship game in between — the coaching staff has decisions to make with Olaseni, Whittingham said.

Junior receiver Britain Covey remains likely to redshirt, having played in the first four games before deciding to give his knee more rehabilitation time. Covey has practiced mostly with the scout team in recent weeks.


Saturday, 6 p.m.

TV: Ch. 13