Well-rested Utah hosts improving UCLA as the stakes keep getting higher
(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Utah Utes enter the field before their most recent home game, a 35-0 defeat of California on Oct. 26.
Oregon State featured a productive offense with a supposedly unstoppable receiver, and the Beavers went scoreless for 59 minutes
Arizona State showcased a dynamic freshman quarterback, who individually produced 33 yards of running and passing
California boasted a tough, consistent defense that allowed 28 points by halftime
Every time a Pac-12 football team has faced Utah as a big underdog this season, regardless of its buildup of being mildly dangerous, the Utes have overwhelmed their opponent. Will UCLA be any different?
As they visit Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday night, the Bruins have a three-game winning streak and feature an outstanding quarterback and running back. They know that even after they started the season 1-5 overall, three more victories would give them a Pac-12 South championship.
That's exactly why the Utes (8-1, 5-1 Pac-12) won't overlook UCLA (4-5, 4-2), even as the world around them peeks ahead to the Pac-12 title game, the Rose Bowl and maybe even the College Football Playoff. “We expect their best shot, by far, because they control their destiny in the South and so do we,” said Ute safety Julian Blackmon.
The schedule also helps Utah, as a three-touchdown favorite. The Utes’ second open date of the season came last weekend (UCLA also was off), after everything that went into a breakthrough victory at Washington. So they’ve had time to recover physically and emotionally, going into a three-game ending of November that could lead to some historic opportunities in December or January.
“You don't get this far just to lose now,” Blackmon said.
At this point, anything other than an 11-1 regular-season record would be a major disappointment for Utah. That’s how well the Utes have positioned themselves after five straight wins, atop the Pac-12 South standings and at No. 7 in the College Football Playoff rankings
. The reality is Utah likely would have to finish 8-1 in conference play just to win the South title, as unlikely as that seemed going into the season.
What do the Utes have to do Saturday night? Just their usual stuff, while wearing 1960s-era uniforms to celebrate the 150-year anniversary of college football. There’s also a bonus opportunity to exploit a UCLA pass defense that ranks No. 126 in the country. Andrew Strauch, a graduate transfer from UCLA, is Utah’s kickoff specialist. If he’s on the field, that’s always a good sign.
UCLA's only hope is to outscore Utah by having sophomore quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson get hot and senior running back Joshua Kelley get going against a defense that ranks No. 3 overall and No. 1 in rushing yards allowed at 56.0 per game.
Thompson-Robinson missed last season's 41-10 loss to Utah due to injury, but Kelley gained 90 yards on 16 carries, including a 25-yard touchdown. Kelley leads the Pac-12 with 861 rushing yards in eight games, compared with 828 for Utah's Zack Moss. Kelley gained 164 yards against an Arizona State defense that made Moss work hard for his 99 yards.
In nine games, the Utes have allowed only 18 runs of 10-plus yards. “That’s exactly who we want to be, a stubborn run defense; force teams to become one-dimensional and get after them with the pass rush,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said.
It starts up front, with defensive tackles Leki Fotu and John Penisini. Their degree of domination requires multiple analogies from their position coach, NFL veteran Sione Po’uha. “Our guys take a lot of pride in preparation … If they were in the Kentucky Derby and they had a horse, they’d name it ‘Preparation,’ ” Po’uha said. “It’s like the Shelby in their garage, and they wax it and they take care of it, polish it. They really take a lot of pride and ownership in how they prepare.”
UCLA AT UTAH
At Rice-Eccles Stadium
Kickoff: 6 p.m.
TV: Ch. 13.
Radio: ESPN 700.
Records: UCLA 4-5 (4-2 Pac-12); Utah 8-1 (5-1).
Series history: UCLA leads, 11-6.
Last meeting: Utah 41, UCLA 10 (2018).
About the Bruins: Coach Chip Kelly is 7-14 in his second season at UCLA, after going 46-7 at Oregon. … UCLA ranks No. 2 nationally in punt returns, with a 22.5-yard average. Utah opponents have returned only four punts for 17 yards. … Utah alumnus Jason Kaufusi coaches UCLA’s outside linebackers. … Redshirt freshman Elisha Guidry, a brother of Ute nickel back Javelin Guidry, in a UCLA reserve defensive back. … Opponents have thrown for 25 touchdowns, with four interceptions.
About the Utes: Utah’s Tyler Huntley is one of five finalists for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, presented to a senior quarterback. ... Six players already have accepted invitations to the prestigious Senior Bowl in late January: safeties Julian Blackmon and Terrell Burgess, defensive linemen Leki Fotu and Bradlee Anae, linebacker Francis Bernard and running back Zack Moss. … Utah’s last five opponents have converted 15 third-down plays into first downs, in 65 attempts. … The kickoff time for next Saturday’s game at Arizona will be announced Sunday morning.