Dressed out like Ohio State in their scarlet-and-gray throwback uniforms, the Utes went ahead on Saturday night and played like the Buckeyes, too, thumping UCLA, 49-3. En route, in whatever garb they wear, Utah’s own run to greatness — six straight wins, nine overall — barrels on.
It’s to the point now where the Utes could show up in fuchsia pumps, dusty-violet culottes, pink crop tops and purple feather boas and they’d beat the living hell out of whoever stood in their way. UCLA proved to be no exception.
“It’s not about the team we’re going against,” Zack Moss said afterward. “It’s about us.”
“We just played well tonight,” Kyle Whittingham said.
He’s right, too.
A major question inside of this particular matchup had nothing to do with fashion, centering instead on the very brutish things that the Utes on defense and the Bruins on offense identify with and obsess about.
For the Utes, it was and always will be stopping the run.
For the Bruins, it was and is prospering with it.
Utah’s run defense came into the game ranked No. 1 in the nation, yielding an average of just 56 yards, a remarkably meager number.
UCLA’s ground game — led by Joshua Kelley, who has averaged five yards per carry — is imperative, not just for coach Chip Kelly’s attack, but for his mental well-being, his football psyche. As explosive and proficient as his better teams have been at the college and professional levels, running the ball is his bedrock.
Something had to give, then. Something had to give way. Something had to give out. Something had to give up.
It was Kelley and Kelly.
The Bruins did exceed the Utes’ average before the end of the first half, with 62 yards on the ground. By that time, though, UCLA was down, 28-3. By game’s end, that total had shrunk to 50 yards.
Leki Fotu, Bradlee Anae, John Penisini, Mika Tafua and friends backed their reputation with reality, including Tafua’s play of the game. It came in the closing minutes of the second quarter, when UCLA threatened to cut Utah’s 11-point lead to four. Instead, Bruins quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson fumbled, the ball picked up by You-Know-Who and returned 68 yards for a touchdown, boosting the margin to 21-3, Utes.
Just over a minute later, after that defense forced a punt, Moss went 38 yards for another TD, to put the score at 28-3. On the first possession of the second half, Tyler Huntley hit Brant Kuithe on a 69-yard touchdown pass, making it 35-3.
Game over. UCLA’s hopes gone.
From there, the entire Utes defense cleaned up. And by cleaned up, we mean it disemboweled the Bruins and feasted on their remains.
Gross, I know. So was this, complete with five UCLA turnovers.
Utah has had its share of great D-linemen through the years, from Luther Elliss to Sione Po’uha to Paul Kruger to Star Lotulelei, along with what seems like a thousand others. But what they have now is as good as any combination of Ute run-stoppers ever. And the back end of the defense is stellar, as well.
While some of UCLA’s misdirection plays caused a few problems early on, there was no way the Bruins could use them to overcome Utah’s formidable wall on this night, not with that lopsided lead in place.
That left Thompson-Robinson, a mobile man, indeed, to scamper for his life, dodging sacks and launching desperate passes. When the Bruins attempted to either run or pass, it looked like one of those old western cartoons where a poor stetson-wearing character is jumped by five others, a dust cloud stirring, with fists flying and joints snapping and boots kicking, stars and pound signs and punctuations spinning out and circling over the first character’s now-hatless head.
Picture that and you pretty much get what happened here.
Everyone on Utah’s resistance joined in to preserve what both the offense and the defense had built together. Extensive is the confidence one phase can gain when the other bolsters it, and it goes both ways.
Huntley blew past his norm — flying beyond effective and efficient, completing 14 of 18 throws for 335 yards, with two touchdowns and no picks. He got another rushing TD.
When Moss got the ball, he devastated his opponents, gaining 127 run yards and scoring two touchdowns. The Bruins couldn’t cope. All they could do was absorb their thunderous beating. All Kelly could do was stand on the sideline, begrudgingly appreciating what the Utes were doing, disassembling his own fortifications while stacking up their own, only wishing his guys could do likewise.
It was painfully, devastatingly, brutally obvious. Yeah, gross.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.