What worked, what didn’t for Utah football in win vs. UCLA

Utah 14, UCLA 7 • The defense made early statements over and over again, and came up big late with the Bruins trying to rally. However, the offense is “still trying to figure out who we are right now.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes defensive end Jonah Elliss (83) and Utah defensive tackle Junior Tafuna (58) celebrate after Ellis's sack on UCLA Bruins quarterback Dante Moore (3), in the final Bruin drive in the 4th quarter, in PAC-12 football action between the Utah Utes and the UCLA Bruins, at Rice-Eccles Stadium, on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023.

Well, the good news is that the Utah football team got some revenge against UCLA for last year, won the opener of its conference slate, and remained undefeated on the season, improving to 4-0 with a 14-7 victory over No. 22-ranked UCLA on Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

As for the bad news … well, the Utes’ offense managed only 219 total yards, half the team’s points were directly attributable to a defensive score, they didn’t get on the board after halftime, and their attack looked generally punchless.

A huge defensive effort — once again — saved the day.

Here’s what went right and wrong in the game.

Utah’s defense gets off to a monstrous start

OK, so Karene Reid getting the ball thrown right to him and taking it back untouched for a 21-yard pick six on the first play from scrimmage maybe said more about the nerves of UCLA freshman QB Dante Moore than anything.

Though Utah coach Kyle Whittingham naturally disagreed.

“Right out of the gate he made a great play — and those things don’t just happen,” Whittingham said. “That’s through lots of film study, and working hard throughout the week, and anticipation, and understanding formations and what’s coming.”

While it was a tone-setter, it wasn’t a standalone moment.

The Utes followed by forcing a three-and-out on the next series, in which they sniffed out and snuffed out a swing pass on second-and-15. Then, on the next possession, they forced another punt thanks to defensive tackle Keanu Tanuvasa getting loose up the middle and delivering a gigantic hit on Moore, leading to a sack and forced fumble.

The Bruins did finally get the ball moving on their fourth drive, and would have had a walk-in TD if not for a dropped pass by Josiah Norwood. Still, the defense stiffened up and ultimately forced a turnover on downs thanks to an incompletion on fourth-and-7.

“The D-line’s been working and getting better every week, so I wouldn’t say necessarily it’s something that we saw, but more technique,” said Reid. “These guys made it real easy for us to fly around. It doesn’t take much skill to run around and make tackles [when you’re] unblocked.”

Nate Johnson struggles early

Whittingham acknowledged on Monday that Nate Johnson is only running about half the plays the team entrusts to Cam Rising. He said postgame Saturday that Johnson now is up to about 75%.

The difference between him and Rising shows, though.

Johnson’s first inclination most of the time he touches it is to run. His passing reads remain very much a work in progress. In Saturday’s first quarter, the Utes had 14 offensive plays — and 12 of them were rushes, which was not a coincidence.

Johnson was only 1 of 2 passing for 22 yards.

Further compounding the problem — one of his designed runs saw him lose a fumble, a season-long problem that was a particularly egregious error in this case considering it came on the first play following a shanked Bruins punt, and the Utes had been set up beautifully in plus territory. (He would fumble a second time later when he absorbed a big hit.)

The one area where he consistently had success was in extending a few plays in which UCLA pressure got through the Utes’ O-line without impediment.

Johnson wound up with a few more completions as the second quarter unfolded, finding Jaylon Glover on a wheel route out of the backfield for a big gain, then culminating a drive before halftime by locating tight end Landen King on a drag route across the middle for a 7-yard TD.

He finished only 9 of 17 passing for 117 yards for the game, but claimed afterward that the team’s offense is not that far off.

“I feel like everything was just fine, it’s just we kept shooting ourselves in the foot,” said Johnson. “We’ve just got a lot of things to clean up on offense.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes quarterback Nate Johnson (13) runs on a quarterback keeper, in PAC-12 football action between the Utah Utes and the UCLA Bruins, at Rice-Eccles Stadium, on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023.

Offensive line had a rough day

It’s not that the Bruins were racking up a ton of sacks (they finished with four), but they were generating instant pressure frequently enough to help mess up whatever rhythm the Utes’ offense managed to gain.

On Utah’s opening drive of the third quarter, Johnson strung together nice back-to-back passes, the first one a short 7-yarder just sneaked past a defender to Mikey Matthews for a first down, the next a 35-yard deep out to Devaughn Vele.

After that, though …

Glover was swallowed up for a 2-yard loss on a rush, a deep try to Emery Simmons in the end zone was well-defended and incomplete, and then a blocking mistake saw a free rush to Johnson, resulting in a 9-yard loss that made it fourth-and-21, thus killing any thought of going for it in plus territory.

The next drive was decimated when a UCLA rusher came up the middle and decked Johnson, forcing a fumble that he recovered, but which resulted in a 12-yard loss.

A big part of Johnson’s 14 rush attempts was simply that he was too often running for his life after a whiffed block on a dropback.

Whittingham personally didn’t see major O-line issues, but conceded the offense is still not where it needs to be.

“The protection wasn’t bad,” he said. “… We haven’t really been prolific this season yet. We’re still trying to figure out who we are right now with what we’re doing offensively.”

Utah’s rush attack generated only 102 rush yards on 48 carries (even discounting sacks, it was 138 yards and 3.1 per carry).

“Honestly, we’ve got much to improve on,” said running back Jaylon Glover, who took over as the lead back after Ja’Quinden Jackson’s injury, and totaled 86 rushing yards. “I have the utmost faith in the uys in front of me, and I love ’em to death, so it’s gonna continue to get better week by week.”

Utah’s defense gets a monstrous finish

Utah’s defense never really let up.

They weren’t perfect Saturday by any means — UCLA definitely left some big plays out there with drops and overthrows when wideouts were open.

The Bruins finally got their offense moving late in the third quarter when Moore connected on a 41-yard bomb down the right sideline. And when a targeting penalty kept UCLA on the field following a third-down incompletion, it was looking like UCLA might finally make a game of it.

Then Moore decided to keep it on a read-option, got sandwiched by Lander Barton and Logan Fano, coughed it up, and the ball was recovered by Utah nickelback Tao Johnson at the Utes’ 9-yard line.

On the next drive, early in the final quarter, the Bruins were moving it down the field again, had it fourth-and-4 at Utah’s 36, only for pressure up the middle on a pass rush to force a misfire by Moore for a turnover on downs.

And after the Bruins made a game of it with a touchdown on their penultimate drive, and Utah’s offense could only run of 25 seconds in the aftermath, the defense came up huge again, sacking Moore on UCLA’s first-, second-, and fourth-down plays. Jonah Elliss finished with 3.5 of Utah’s seven sacks.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes defensive end Logan Fano (0) and Utah defensive end Jonah Elliss (83) sack UCLA Bruins quarterback Dante Moore (3), in the final Bruin drive in the 4th quarter, in PAC-12 football action between the Utah Utes and the UCLA Bruins, at Rice-Eccles Stadium, on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023.

“What wins football games close games is a fourth-quarter pass rush and the ability to run the ball in the fourth quarter. We had the pass rush,” said Whittingham.

Tanuvasa, meanwhile, said the Utes’ defensive linemen took it upon themselves not to let up.

“When we went into halftime, the mindset was just to keep our foot on the gas,” he said. “We’ve been playing our game, there wasn’t much correction [made] at halftime. And so once we came off after that score, it was the same mindset: Play great football, play great technicque, hustle to the ball, play our culture, and just be great.”