-- UCLA travels to Salt Lake City, Utah, to take on the Utah Utes Saturday, at 3:30 (PST). The game will be televised by Prime Ticket, with Bill Macdonald and J.J. Stokes calling the action from the booth.
-- Utah is 5-4 overall, and 2-4 in the Pac-12 South.
-- UCLA is 5-4 and 4-2, which has the Bruins tied for first place in the Pac-12 South.
-- The two programs have played against each other 9 times, UCLA winning eight of the games, with the series dating back to 1933.
-- The last time the two programs met was in 2007, when the #11-ranked Bruins went to SalT Lake City and were pounded by the Utes, 44-6. In that game, UCLA turned over the ball five times, one in which receiver Marcus Everett fumbled the ball while stretching it over the goal line. It was Karl Dorrell's last season.
-- The schools also met in the 2006 season (UCLA winning, 31-10), but before that hadn't played each other since the 1974 and 1973 seasons.
-- UCLA is playing to stay atop the Pac-12 South. With USC (4-2) ineligible to win the conference, and the Bruins having beaten Arizona State (4-2) last week, they control their own destiny. If they beat the Utes, then beat Colorado at home and USC at the Coliseum, UCLA will win the Pac-12 South, even if ASU wins out due to UCLA winning the head-to-head tie-breaker.
-- Utah is coached by Kyle Whittingham, who is in his 7th year at the helm. Whittingham took over the Utah program when Urban Meyer left to coach at Florida, and Whittingham has posted six straight winning seasons, with an overall record of 62-24. He has a three-year streak of double-digit wins going – having gone 13-0 in 2008, 10-3 in 2009 and 10-3 in 2010. His undefeated 2008 team ended the season ranked 4th and 2nd in the polls, beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, and Whittingham was named National Coach of the Year by a few different organizations. Before taking over the head coaching job, Whittingham was the Utes defensive coordinator for 10 seasons. Whittingham is 1-1 against UCLA while coaching Utah.
-- Utah's offensive coordinator is, of course, Norm Chow, who was most recently UCLA's offensive coordinator. In fact, UCLA is still paying Chow $500,000 for the season. Chow wasn't successful at UCLA, and there was some talk that he had seen his better days, so to speak. At Utah, his offense is 111th in the country in yards per game.
-- If you look at the two teams' common opponents this season, it's tough to draw any conclusions. UCLA beat both Arizona State and Cal, with Utah losing to both. But Utah last week beat Arizona, in Tucson, where UCLA was embarrassed a few weeks ago.
-- The Utes are 5-0 this season when they lead after three quarters. They are 5-1 in games when they score first.
-- Utah is 78-124-6 all-time against the Pac-12. The only Pac-12 team it hasn't beaten is Washington (0-7). Its second worst record is against UCLA. It also has a losing record against every other Pac-12 school except Arizona (20-15-2) and Washington State (5-5).
-- UCLA quarterback Kevin Prince's 296 rushing yards this season are the most by a Bruin quarterback since Cade McNown ran for 311 in 1995. The school record for a quarterback in a season is 815 by Jeff Dankworth in 1976.
-- The wins for UCLA over Cal and Arizona State are the first back-to-back victories in league play since winning three in a row in 2009 season, over Washington, Washington State and Arizona State.
-- The win over 20th-ranked Arizona State last week was UCLA's first over a ranked conference opponent since 2007 when it posted a win over 9th-ranked Oregon.
-- This is the first time in Rick Neuheisel's four years at UCLA that he has a winning record after 9 games of the season (2008: 3-6; 2009: 4-5; 2010: 4-5).
-- It's also the first time that Neuheisel has a winning conference record nine games into the season (2-4, 1-5, 2-4).
-- If UCLA beats Utah Saturday, it will be just Neuheisel's fourth conference road win at UCLA. He won at Washington in 2008, at Washington State in 2009, and then at Oregon State earlier this season. Those three teams have a combined record of 3-30.
-- Both Utah and UCLA have won two consecutive games for the first time this season in the last two weeks. UCLA beat Cal and Arizona State at home, and Utah beat Oregon State at home and Arizona on the road.
-- The Utes' home is Rice-Ecles-Stadium, which uses field turf and seats 45,017.
-- The weather forecast Saturday for Salt Lake City calls for a high of 49 degrees, with a 40% chance of showers.
UTAH'S OFFENSE V. UCLA'S DEFENSE
The Utah offense is John White's (JR, 5-8, 186) world, and the other 10 guys are just living in it. The running back is one of those short, compact running backs that are so hard to bring down if you're a poor tackling team. Against Oregon State, he ran for over 200 yards, and against Arizona last week, he ran for another 112. On the year, he already has over 1000 rushing yards. In short, he's a beast, and adept at running for tough yards up the middle.
|Quarterback Jon Hays.|
Heading the Utah offense is Norm Chow, UCLA's former offensive coordinator. In his first year with the Utes, Chow's offense has been far from good, ranked 111th in the country in yards/game. He's been plagued, as he was at UCLA, by an injury to his starting quarterback, Jordan Wynn, on October 1st in the Washington game. In Wynn's stead, Jon Hays (JR, 6-0, 212) a junior college transfer, has gotten the call. Hays hasn't looked great this year, throwing seven interceptions to go along with his seven touchdowns, but against Arizona he actually seemed to have a bit of a breakout game, throwing for 199 yards, including a 65 yarder for a touchdown. He's still got a long ways to go, and Arizona's defense is not particularly good, but for a guy who has simply been asked to not hurt the team, it was a positive step.
At receiver, the Utes have a few weapons, including former UCLA recruit and speedster Reggie Dunn (JR, 5-10, 170). Utah likes to use him not only in the receiving game, but also on reverses and end arounds to get the ball in his hands quicker. Tight end Dallin Rogers, who was an outlet for both Wynn and Hays through the first six games, went down with an ACL tear after the big win over Pittsburgh. At this point, the two primary receivers for the Utes are Devonte Christopher (JR, 6-1, 200) and Dres Anderson (FR, 6-1, 171), the son of former UCLA-great, Flipper Anderson. Christopher and Anderson have combined for 48 catches and 741 yards- not astronomical numbers by any means, but given the lack of experience at the quarterback position, wholly respectable.
But like we said up top, Utah's offense begins and ends with White. He's had a full 66% of the rushing attempts on the entire team, and is averaging five yards per carry. In the last two games, he's come on strong, and that's partly been due to an improving Utah offensive line. Against Arizona and Oregon State, the Utes were able to open pretty consistent gaps in the middle for White to run through. Of course, that's partly due to the quality of the Utah offensive line, and partly due to the fact that Arizona and Oregon State's defensive fronts are not particularly good. The strength of the OL is up the middle, with right guard Sam Brenner (JR, 6-4, 300) and center Tevita Stevens (JR, 6-3, 300).
In the last two games, UCLA's defense has been a revelation- at least, relative to the previous seven games. After being awful in both pass and run defense for most of the year, the Bruins have finally put together a string of decent-to-good defensive games. And you can point to one major factor that has contributed to this improvement: personnel changes.
UCLA's defense enters the game having crafted a number of experiments in the last couple of weeks to account for injuries and the suspension of Cassius Marsh. Datone Jones has moved primarily inside from his defensive end position, and Seali'i Epenesa and Donovan Carter have seen increased reps over Nate Chandler and Justin Edison. Randall Carroll, who played significantly at wide receiver this year, is now on the defensive side of the ball. Aramide Olaniyan, who really hadn't played until the Cal game, has carved out a niche as a speed rusher at defensive end.
It all adds up to a defense that, at least in the past couple of weeks, has proven capable of some dynamic personnel decisions. While the results have been mixed, it is a welcome thawing of the conservatism that has plagued the defense thus far this year.
In pass defense, the Bruins have actually performed fairly well considering the sheer number of injuries they've suffered. Alex Mascarenas, Tony Dye, Sheldon Price, Andrew Abbott, Dietrich Riley, Jamie Graham, Anthony Jefferson have all spent at least part of the year injured. Aaron Hester, who has been a paragon of health for the first nine games of the year, went down in practice on Wednesday and left the field on crutches with an apparent ankle injury. In a sense, UCLA has been lucky. Guys like Tevin McDonald and Stan McKay,
The question mark is still the run defense. Last week, after the first quarter or so, UCLA actually managed a pretty fair pass rush against Brock Osweiler. But the defensive line and linebackers were gashed badly by the ASU running game. In large part, this was due to the defense spending much of the game in nickel coverage, but there was also an element of not being strong up the middle. And it's really simple, if a bit harsh, to figure out why. Sean Westgate, who's a great kid, is simply overmatched in the run game at weak side linebacker, but he is still playing a little over half of the defensive plays. Nate Chandler and Justin Edison are still starting the games at defensive tackle, even if Edison doesn‘t actually end up playing much. Patrick Larimore, who had a great year last year, is looking nowhere near as good this year. It adds up to a defense that is still prone to giving up huge chunks of yardage up the middle.
The Utah offensive line vs. UCLA's porous run defense might very well be where the game is decided. Given the previous seven games of truly awful defensive play for UCLA, it's hard to view the past couple of weeks of improved defensive play as anything more than a mirage. And you could even see the mirage start to return to the desert this past week against ASU, as the Sun Devils were able to run generally at will. Against Utah, a pretty one-dimensional team, it's going to be paramount to stop the run.
Unfortunately, White's the exact kind of running back that seems to always give UCLA fits -- compact, strong, and hard to tackle. While you'd have to expect that UCLA is going to load up to stop the run and force Hays to beat them, it's really a question of whom UCLA puts in the game. If there's a steady diet of Westgate, Chandler, and Edison in the mix up the middle, then you can expect Utah's offensive line to open up some of those familiar gaping holes and for White to run amok.
Unless the UCLA defense opts for a strong dose of Eric Kendricks and less Justin Edison and Nate Chandler up front, it's hard to imagine that White will run for less than 150 yards.
Of course, if UCLA does succeed in stopping White, then the game will likely be nearly in hand. Forcing Hays to throw has to be the game plan for UCLA, but getting there may prove difficult.
UCLA'S OFFENSE V. UTAH'S DEFENSE
Until John White got untracked in recent weeks, Utah's defense has been the only thing keeping the Utes in games. Overall, the Utah defense is very strong against the run and produces a very good pass rush, which combined will almost always amount to a very good defense. They blitz a fair amount from the linebacker spots, and are generally good at getting home when they do blitz.
|Linebacker Chaz Walker.|
Along the defensive front, Utah has another "star" in Star Lotulelei (JR, 6-3, 325). The defensive tackle is a load up front and is remarkably quick for a man that size. Against Arizona he was consistently double teamed, and has been for much of the year. His ability to hold up blockers has really been the engine that drives this defense.
Because of the work Lotulelei does up front, the linebackers are able to hit gaps unblocked, and the defensive ends, Derrick Shelby (SR, 6-3, 271) and Joe Kruger (SO, 6-7, 270), primarily, are consistently in one-on-ones with offensive tackles, which has helped account for Shelby quietly accumulating four sacks on the year.
The Utes are also pretty strong in the secondary, although not at the caliber of their run defense. Utah starts a freshman, Eric Rowe (FR, 6-1, 185) at free safety, who has done the usual freshman things -- occasionally getting burned in coverage and being out of position -- but has looked good for the most part, and is an example of how playing a freshman can yield positive plays as well as negative. At cornerback, the Utes' Conroy Black (SR, 6-0, 186) is the guy assigned to play against the opposing team's best receiver. He's been tremendous this year, with two interceptions and just 26 tackles on the year, which is actually a good sign for a corner. Few quarterbacks have really tried to test him this year.
This is one of the top defense's UCLA will face all year.
On the Bruins' end, Kevin Prince appears to be having his belated coming-out party. In the last three games, Prince has thrown for 574 yards and rushed for 237. While you'd like to see more passing yards, those totals are not a bad balance for UCLA's version of the Pistol. And with the way Prince is running the zone read currently, it'd be an odd decision for UCLA to go away from running the ball 60% to 70% of the time. He's made Cal and Arizona State's defensive end's look foolish the past couple of weeks with his ability to fake the handoff, read the coverage, and gain yards.
The offensive line has been a mixed bag, but given the last few years of issues, UCLA is happy to have any bag at all. In the running game, the line has really hit its stride in the last couple of weeks, which can be linked in part to the emergence of Wade Yandall at guard. On the flip side, UCLA's pass blocking has gotten a bit worse in the past couple of weeks, which you might also link, at least partially, to Yandall. As a redshirt freshman, he's not going to be perfect, but it's nice to see UCLA go with the talented, if inexperienced, player.
At the receiver position, Nelson Rosario has continued to be an enigma, wrapped in a riddle, cloaked in mystery. He has all the talent necessary to be a big-time, potentially NFL-level receiver, but he loses focus so often. His last game against ASU was the best by a UCLA receiver in recent memory, but the previous three weeks were filled with equal parts mental lapses and brilliant plays. Rosario is a senior, and it appears the UCLA coaching staff is willing to ride the roller coaster of his highs and lows. Josh Smith, Taylor Embree, and the rest of the gang have been steady, if relatively non-descript. With Prince throwing the ball, it's looking like Rosario is going to be the primary option.
We're going out on a serious limb here, but in the same way that we thought UCLA's defense the past couple of weeks has been a mirage, we tend to think that the offense might be the real deal. Prince isn't doing anything outside of his capabilities, the offensive line isn't playing way above its collective head, the receivers aren't playing too far above their normal range, and yet UCLA's offense has started to click on all cylinders.
It's an interesting thing to consider with Prince, who'll be starting his 22nd game against Utah. Beset by injuries since his senior year of high school, it almost seems like he's finally hitting his stride and showing off the potential that was reported back in fall camp of 2010. He's running the ball effectively, granted, by against ASU he actually threw the ball very well, which has been the real test for him.
Of course, it's going to be a tall order for Prince to take what he's done against ASU and Cal and apply it to the tough defense of Utah, but the Utes haven't faced off against anything like UCLA's read option, and also have only really played against one particularly good rushing team. UCLA, at this point, is almost assuredly the best running team Utah has faced.
If the UCLA offensive line can simply hold its own against Utah's front seven, and play somewhere near as effective in the run game as it has the past couple of weeks, then this should be a pretty even match-up.
Utah's kicker, Coleman Petersen, is serviceable, and can kick pretty consistently out to about 45, but has missed four field goals on the year. It appears Rick Neuheisel is comfortable with Tyler Gonzalez out to about 40, so I suppose you can give that match-up to the Utes.
But then you'd have to give UCLA the advantage in the punting game, because although Sean Sellwood won special teams player of the week last week, Jeff Locke has possibly been UCLA's second most valuable player (after Prince) the last couple of weeks. With a hurt shoulder, he's boomed his kickoffs and done some of the best situational punting of his life, downing more balls consistently inside the 15 than I've seen from a UCLA punter in years.
In the return game, there's not much of an edge for either team. Neither Taylor Embree or Utah's Griff McNabb are threats to break a long run in punt returns, and both Reggie Dunn and Josh Smith are constantly threatening to score touchdowns from the kickoff return spot, but rarely do.
Although Utah is favored by about a touchdown, this game is closer than that would indicate. These teams are remarkably even. Both teams have made big strides the past couple of weeks, but Utah had theirs against two bottom feeders in the Pac-12, while UCLA took advantage of an abysmal quarterback (the Cal game) and a paper tiger (ASU).
It's such a cliché, but this game is truly going to hinge on the line of scrimmage, especially on defense for UCLA. If the Bruins can load the box, and keep White somewhere below 100 yards rushing, you have to like their chances in this game. But that's a big "If". UCLA has not exactly shown a propensity for stopping the opposing team's best asset, so if we had to guess, we'd say White's going to get his yards.
The weather might be a factor, with possibly rain and in the mid-40s, limiting two already limited passing games for the Utes and Bruins, keeping the score down.
Utah wins the turnover-margin battle, being +5 on the season while UCLA is -1. In a low-scoring game, that's significant, with one turnover possibly being the decisive turn.
So what it comes down to is this: Will UCLA's offense be able to play as well as they've played these past few weeks against a legitimately good running defense? Prince certainly looks like he's arrived at some level of comfort with the offense and his role in it. He doesn't seem as prone to the jitters that took hold in previous stretches as the starting quarterback.
In Utah, the site of a dismal 44-6 loss in Karl Dorrell's last year, and riding the high of a two-game win streak, we think this year's Bruins will get some measure of redemption.