Utes beat UCLA with a suffocating defensive performance

Defensive battle at Rice-Eccles Stadium sees Utes improve to 4-0 on the season and 1-0 in Pac-12 play, as neither side can generate any offense.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes linebacker Karene Reid (21) runs for a touchdown on a pick-six on the second play of the game, in PAC-12 football action between the Utah Utes and theUCLA Bruins, at Rice-Eccles Stadium, on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023.

With Cam Rising and Brant Kuithe yet to play this season, the No. 11-ranked Utah football team’s offense has yet to find its footing.

But with a fourth consecutive stellar defensive performance Saturday, it hasn’t hurt them yet.

The Utes ground their way to a 14-7 victory over No. 22 UCLA at Rice-Eccles Stadium, making them 4-0 on the season, and winners of their conference opener in their final season of Pac-12 play.

UCLA gained just 243 total yards, including only nine on the ground on 32 carries. Meanwhile, vaunted freshman quarterback Dante Moore went just 15 for 35 passing for 234 yards.

While the Bruins left a few big plays out there thanks to drops and overthrows, the Utes’ defense was mostly dominant all day.

Then again, they had to be, considering Utah’s offense was arguably even less effective.

Utah amassed only 219 yards for the game, and they presented virtually zero downfield threat all game other than 22- and 35-yard gains by Devaughn Vele.

Johnson wound up 9 of 17 passing for only 117 yards in the game. Otherwise, it was literally three yards and a cloud of dust, as a Utah rushing attack hampered by Ja’Quinden Jackson’s early injury and UCLA stacking the box for pretty much the entire second half resulted in 102 yards on 48 carries — just 2.1 per rush.

Indeed, even one of Utah’s touchdowns was courtesy of the defense, as linebacker Karene Reid got a 21-yard pick-six on the first play from scrimmage.

UCLA didn’t did on the scoreboard until 3:39 remained, when Moore found Josiah Norwood on a 17-yard pass.

Utah’s offense only managed to run 25 seconds off the clock, but the defense sacked Moore on three of the next four plays, effectively ending the game.

Utah finished with seven sacks.

Utes lead UCLA 14-0 after three quarters

Naturally, the quarter that saw each team finally uncork some big offensive plays wound up yielding zero points.

Nate Johnson finally got the ball going downfield, thanks to a 35-yard completion to Devaughn Vele. However, the drive fell flat when a missed blocking assignment resulted in Johnson being sacked for a nine-yard loss on third-and-12 play.

UCLA responded with a 41-yard bomb, then was given another 15 yards with a targeting call after a third-and-11 pass fell incomplete.

However, quarterback Dante Moore kept it on a read-option, got decked by linebacker Lander Barton, and the ball was recovered at the 9-yard line by slot corner Tao Johnson.

Utes lead UCLA 14-0 at halftime

It hasn’t always been pretty, but it’s been pretty methodical.

Dominant defense, consistent rushing, just enough passing. And following that formula, No. 11-ranked Utah built a 14-0 halftime lead over No. 22 UCLA.

The Utes had 27 rushes among 37 offensive plays in something resembling an old-school three yards and a cloud of dust style. They gained 99 yards on the ground in the opening half.

Quarterback Nate Johnson had a few nice moments throwing it late in the second quarter, including connecting with running back Jaylon Glover on a wheel route for a big gain, then finding tight end Landen King for a seven-yard touchdown.

Still, it was Utah’s defense that was again the big story.

UCLA gained only 49 total yards — including seven rushing yards on 13 attempts.

Heralded freshman QB Dante Moore was only 5 of 16 for 42 yards.

Ja’Quinden Jackson goes out

Utah’s running back room was not particularly deep to begin with.

Losing starter Ja’Quinden Jackson won’t help.

The Texan was visibly limping after two carries in the first quarter and went off the field, though he later returned.

In the second quarter, however, Jackson was observed being helped off the field and into the tunnel back to the locker room. He had 26 yards on six carries.

Jaylon Glover took over as the Utes’ bell cow.

Utah leads UCLA 7-0 after first quarter

What was true in Utah’s first three games held to form in the first 15 minutes of Saturday’s Pac-12 opener vs. UCLA: The defense is tough, the offense is struggling.

The Utes established control early with a pick-six on the first play from scrimmage, and later a forced fumble. They finished the period by forcing a 5-yard loss on a rush.

UCLA totaled just 30 yards across five drives, and averaged only 1.6 yards per play.

However, the Utes couldn’t get a ton going themselves.

They did total 77 yards, but 12 of their 14 offensive plays were rushes. As a result, Nate Johnson was only 1 of 2 passing for 22 yards.

Meanwhile, his season-long problem of putting the ball on the ground reared its ugly head again, as he lost a fumble in UCLA territory following a shanked punt.

That miscue, along with a missed field goal and a turnover on downs on the UCLA side of the field, resulted in only seven points.

Pick-six on first play from scrimmage gives Utes 7-0 lead

A lot has been made of UCLA freshman QB Dante Moore and the job he did in the Bruins’ first three games.

His first play at Rice-Eccles Stadium presented a bit more adversity, however.

He dropped back to pass and threw the ball right to linebacker Karene Reid, who went untouched 21 yards into the end zone.

Just 12 seconds in, and the Utes were gifted a 7-0 lead.

Cam Rising not in uniform as Utes take the field

Despite going through pregame warmups, Cam Rising was not in uniform once the Utes took the field ahead of kickoff.

So Nate Johnson will be the starter, Bryson Barnes the backup, and Rising will once again be out of action.

It appears defensive ends Connor O’Toole and Van Fillinger, kicker Cole Becker, and defensive tackle Tevita Fotu will also be out today.

Cam Rising is in uniform, but appears set to be No. 3 QB

Quarterback Cam Rising — who has been out since January with a torn ACL — is in uniform pregame for the first time this season.

However, he was observed taking snaps from Utah’s backup center pregame, while Nate Johnson was taking snaps from starting center Jaren Kump.

That’s an indication that Johnson will start.

Early in pregame warm-ups, Rising was taking snaps from the backup center, while Bryson Barnes was behind the third-stringer.

However, as the team wrapped up pregame with full offensive line alignments and receivers running routes, Johnson was with the first team, while Barnes took the second-string snaps.

That would seem an indication that Rising is set to be the Utes’ No. 3 today.

Utes get four big names back for UCLA

The Utes were without 15-16 contributors last week vs. Weber State. Kyle Whittingham said he was hopeful to get a handful of those players back for today’s Pac-12 opener vs. UCLA at Rice-Eccles Stadium.