• UCLA will travel to Salt Lake City to take on the Utah Utes Thursday at 7:00 PST. The game will be televised nationally on Fox Sports 1.
• Utah is 3-1 overall and 0-1 in the Pac-12, having beaten Utah State (30-26) and Weber State (70-7) at home, and then losing to Oregon State (51-48 in overtime) at home, and then beating BYU (20-13) on the road last week.
• UCLA is 3-0 and ranked 13th in the nation.
• The Bruins lead the all-time series with the Utes, 9-2, and are 3-2 in Salt Lake City. Utah, however, has won two of the last three games – in 2007 and 2011 – before UCLA beat the Utes in the Rose Bowl last season.
• Perhaps most significant is that UCLA's two recent losses to Utah were in Salt Lake City, and both were blowouts, 44-6 (2007) and 31-6 (2011).
•Kyle Whittingham is in his 9th year as the Utah head coach, with a record of 74-33. Since the Utes joined the Pac-12 in 2011, he's 16-13, and has yet to post a winning Pac-12 season. He has almost as many losses (12) in the Pac-12 in two years and one game than he had in seven seasons in the Mountain West (13). Whittingham had the program rolling until coming into the Pac-12, where stiffer competition severely impacted his success. He's known as a defensive guy, having been Utah's defensive coordinator before being promoted to head coach, and was a former linebacker at BYU.
• Not only was the Pac-12's stiffer competition a bit of an encumbrance for Utah the past two seasons, its offense was also a major contributor to its lack of success. In 2011, former UCLA and USC offensive coordinator Norm Chow took over the Utah OC job and fielded one of the worst offenses in the country, being ranked 109th overall. Then last year, Whittingham promoted then-24-year-old quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson to OC, and Utah was ranked 105th in total offense for 2012. It seems like Whittingham had had enough, and he coaxed Dennis Erickson out of retirement this season to be Co-Offensive Coordinator with Johnson, and Erickson has proven he knows offense. So far this season, the Utes are 20th nationally in total offense.
• Quarterback Travis Wilson was named Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week after passing for 273 yards and two touchdowns (no turnovers) in Utah's win against BYU last week.
• Wilson made his first career start last year against UCLA as a true freshman in the 21-14 Bruin win.
• Utah's leading receiver is Dres Anderson, the son of former UCLA receiver Flipper Anderson, who played at UCLA from 1984 to 1987. Flipper led UCLA in receiving yards in 1986 and 1987 and ranks 10th in UCLA history with 2,023 career receiving yards.
• Utah cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah is the brother of Karim Abdul-Jabbar, who was a running back at UCLA in 1992-1995, and is the fifth-leading rusher in school history with 3,812 career yards.
• Utah also has a bye this week heading into next Thursday's game. Whittingham is 6-2 coming off regular-season byes, but both losses have come in Pac-12 play in the last two seasons.
• Eight true freshman Utes have played so far this season, while 16 true freshman Bruins have seen the field.
• Utah annually bestows the Don Reddish Award to the head coach of any Ute program that had the most successful season the previous year. It will be awarded at the UCLA game to Kevin Sweeney, who is the Utah ski coach.
• Utah has 21 straight sellouts of Rice-Eccles Stadium, going back to the first game of the 2010 season. Nineteen of those games were standing-room-only crowds that exceeded the stadium's 45,017-seat capacity. There are a few hundred bleacher seats and standing-room-only tickets still remaining for the UCLA game.
• The game will be Utah's sixth annual black-out game, with the Utes in all-black uniforms and the fans predominantly wearing black. Utah is 4-1 in blackout games.
• Utah is the unofficial champion of the State of Utah, and is duly awarded the Beehive Boot, which is given to the in-state FBS program that beats the other two in any given year. This year the Utes beat Utah State and BYU, while also beating Weber State, but Weber State doesn't participate in the Beehive Boot competition since it's an FCS program.
• Utah will be playing in its third straight game with a kick-off of 8:00 p.m. local time or later.
• The early betting line for the game is UCLA -5.
• The weather forecast calls for a high of 55 degrees Thursday, with a 35% chance of rain. Game-time temperature should be in the upper 40s.
UCLA'S OFFENSE v. UTAH'S DEFENSE
Utah has built a reputation over the last several years under Kyle Whittingham for having stout defensive units, and UCLA fans need look no further than last year to see the evidence of that, when a middling Utah team held the Bruins to 21 points in Pasadena. There was an expectation, though, that there would be some dropoff with the loss of top defensive lineman Star Lotuleilei from last year, but, at least on the defensive front line, that hasn't been the case.
The Utes run a bit of a hybrid 4-3, with senior linebacker/end Trevor Reilly (6'5, 255) rushing the passer or dropping into coverage depending on the formation and personnel. Reilly has spent more time as a pure defensive end this year than he did last year, though, and has developed into a good edge rusher, with two sacks and 6 tackles for loss through the first four games of the year. He has an excellent motor, frequently giving offensive tackles fits with his relentless energy. It's shocking, really, that he is a former walkon, given that he may be Utah's best defensive player this year.
|Linebacker Trevor Reilly.|
The further you move into the back of the defense, though, the more you see some cracks. Though the Utes have replaced their interior linemen well from a year ago, they've had a tougher time replacing their secondary. Like UCLA, the Utes lost almost their entire starting secondary from a year ago. The lone returning starter, junior Eric Rowe (6'1, 205), once again mans the free safety spot, but after that, the secondary has been questionable. At one cornerback spot, the Utes have started senior Keith McGill (6'3, 205) in each of the first four games. McGill is a converted safety who sat out the entirety of last year, and has looked rusty through the early going, allowing a few big plays in particular against Oregon State. The Utes have had some fluctuation at the other cornerback position, starting both junior Davlon Orphrey (6'0, 187) and freshman Reginald Porter (5'11, 190) at various points this year. Starting senior strong safety Michael Walker (5'9, 182) has some experience, playing considerably throughout each of his first three years in the program. A career backup, he has questionable size for the position.
When Reilly plays end, the Utes will often drop into a nickel package, with the nickel back playing more of a defensive back role than as the box safety in UCLA's scheme, for a point of reference. Both freshman Justin Thomas (5'9, 173) and senior Mike Honeycutt (5'10, 181) have seen time in that role. It's a virtual guarantee that with the amount of three and four wide receiver sets UCLA will likely throw at Utah that the Utes will play in the nickel package for much of the game.
As we said above, when Reilly plays end, Utah typically does without a third linebacker, instead opting for an extra defensive back. At the other two linebacker positions, Utah has recently gone with sophomore Jared Norris (6'1, 230) at middle linebacker and sophomore Jason Whittingham (6'2, 240) at the other outside position. Norris had a huge game against BYU, and has shown versatility between the different linebacker positions so far this year. Whittingham took over for Norris after Norris flipped to middle ‘backer against Oregon State.
Scheme-wise, the Utes have used some considerable pressure at points this year, particularly against Oregon State, when the pressure wasn't very effective against Sean Mannion. With the trouble that Utah has had against passing attacks, you might expect that the Utes will opt for more of a conservative scheme as the Pac-12 season really gets underway.
Offensively, UCLA has put up some outstanding numbers to start the year, with the Bruins ranking 3rd in the country with an average of over 52 points per game. Although the competition, outside of Nebraska, has mostly been of the patsy variety, the amount of production for the offense still represents a pretty massive step forward for UCLA in its second year of Noel Mazzone's scheme.
Much of the success can be attributed to a drastically improved offensive line. How the UCLA offensive line would look was one of the biggest questions heading into fall camp and, largely, we didn't have a very good answer after camp was over. Through three games, though, it's pretty easy to say that the offensive line is already improved from where it was last year. Much of the improvement, shockingly, has come from the addition of true freshman offensive guard Alex Redmond. Redmond has fit seamlessly into the unit after really only practicing for a week during fall camp, and he's been arguably UCLA's offensive MVP through each of the first three games, showing off a mean streak to go along with impressive balance and strength.
Xavier Su'a-Filo and Jake Brendel have also been impressive on the interior of the line, rarely allowing much of a threat to creep into Brett Hundley's field of vision. Su'a-Filo has picked up where he left off last year, using his impressive agility to get out in front of running plays and take on multiple defenders. UCLA switched its tackles last week, flipping Torian White to left tackle and Simon Goines to right tackle, and through one game it looked like a successful move. Goines has been hampered by knee trouble which has limited his mobility on the blind side, and White has looked improved from where he was last year. Working in at right tackle is true freshman Caleb Benenoch, who will likely be the first sub off the bench at both tackle and guard.
The running game has been strong, which is largely attributed to the improved play for the offensive line. It'd be an oversight, though, to not give some of the credit to Jordon James, Paul Perkins, Steven Manfro, and Malcolm Jones. Manfro, in particular, had a huge game last week against New Mexico State, probably his best game as a Bruin. He scored as both a receiver and a running back, and also had a 70 yard kick return. James has been solid all year, and looked better as a North-South runner, which is helped by the holes being opened by the offensive line. Perkins also broke out a bit against the Aggies, catching several swing passes out of the backfield for first downs.
The big news for UCLA is that Damien Thigpen will return this week for the first time since tearing his ACL against USC last year. If Thigpen is 100% healthy and ready, he provides a pass-catching threat out of the backfield that really doesn't exist at this point. Last year, he was devastating on wheel routes and swing passes, to the point where defenses had to account for it whenever he was in the game, which helped to open up the intermediate passing game.
At receiver, UCLA has a variety of weapons, with Shaquelle Evans having developed a pretty significant connection with Brett Hundley. Devin Fuller had a bit of a breakout game against New Mexico State. If Hundley had been a bit more on the money, Fuller easily could have had 100+ yards and three touchdowns. Jordan Payton, Devin Lucien, Darius Bell, and a veritable cast of thousands fill out the receiver rotation with a variety of high quality possession receivers.
Utah's defense is decent, despite what the overall statistics indicate, and probably the best that UCLA has faced this year. The defensive front has a better chance of standing up against UCLA's offensive line than any line they've faced this year. That's good for the Utes, because with the secondary struggling against the one major passing attack they've faced this year, they'll likely need to generate a pass rush with just their front four to have much success against UCLA.
The Bruins have some obvious factors in their favor. First, UCLA's stable of receivers probably has a significant advantage over Utah's inexperienced secondary. If Utah elects to pressure heavily, UCLA also has a very good dumpoff receiver in Fuller, who can make significant gains off of slants and drags. Second, UCLA has a quarterback in Hundley who has shown a propensity for bouncing back from poor performances, which is what we'd term his game against New Mexico State.
Last year, UCLA went to a very conservative gameplan against the Utes in the wake of Hundley's four interception disaster against California, eking out a 21-14 win over Utah behind 47 carries from the running game. Hundley didn't have as miserable a statistic performance against New Mexico State as he had against Cal, though, so we'd have to suspect that UCLA won't drastically change the plan for Utah this year.
It's going to be interesting, though. Outside of perhaps the paper tiger in Nebraska, UCLA hasn't faced a real defense, and it'll be very interesting to see how the offense runs now that the Bruins are headed into Pac-12 play.
UTAH'S OFFENSE v. UCLA'S DEFENSE
Kyle Whittingham made the surprise move in the offseason to hire Dennis Erickson, the 66 year-old former head coach of Arizona State, as the co-offensive coordinator for the Utes, and already the move has paid off. Last year, Utah ranked 105th nationally with 324.4 yards per game, and were 73rd in scoring, at 26.7 points per game. In a league where offenses have become more and more high powered, that was simply untenable moving forward.
Erickson has clearly instilled a level of confidence in Utah's offensive players, but the main difference is that the scheme is simply more effective. Erickson has long been considered one of the progenitors of the spread, one-back offenses, and if you squint a little, his offense looks quite a bit like Noel Mazzone's scheme at UCLA. It's no coincidence, really, since Mazzone was the offensive coordinator for Erickson during his stops at Oregon State and Arizona State.
So far this year, Erickson has done what he usually does, using short passing and the running game to set up longer, vertical passes. With sophomore quarterback Travis Wilson's (6'7, 240) running ability, Erickson has been able to use the zone read more than he has in the past, with Wilson being particularly deadly against Oregon State a few weeks ago, rushing for over 100 yards.
The offense has certainly been effective—Utah has averaged over 500 yards per game through the first four games of the year, and have scored 42 points per game. It's been a balanced attack as well, with over 218 yards per game on the ground and around 280 through the air.
Erickson has quite a tool in Wilson, who has improved as a pocket passer this year after looking shaky at times last year. The quarterback has become much more efficient, completing nearly 65% of his passes to go along with nine touchdowns and just three interceptions. What's been most impressive, actually, is how polished he's been in determining when to run and when to stay in the pocket. Whether scrambling or using the zone read, Wilson has been very effective, rushing for an average of 8 yards per attempt, and already having scored five touchdowns on the ground this year. Wilson is at least 6'6, but he has legitimate straight ahead speed.
He has been assisted by improved play from his receivers this year, which, again, you can likely attribute to the scheme changes. Junior receiver Dres Anderson (6'1, 187) is his main target, and the receiver has rewarded Wilson's trust with an excellent start to the season. He's the big play threat for Erickson, with a 22 yard average per reception. The son of former UCLA receiver Flipper Anderson has very good speed, and has developed into a much more reliable pass catcher over time. Senior receiver Sean Fitzgerald (6'3, 200) and Senior receiver Anthony Denham (6'4, 222) factor into the passing attack quite a bit as well. The passing attack is well balanced, with each of the top four receivers, including sophomore running back Bubba Poole (6'0, 196), having at least 10 catches and no one having more than 18.
|Wide Receiver Dres Anderson.|
The offensive line, as we said above, is improved, which has helped both Wilson's confidence and the running game. Much of the improvement, again, can be attributed to the scheme, which works to get the ball out quicker, or at least get a decision made quicker. Probably the most talented of the bunch is sophomore Jeremiah Poutasi (6'5, 345), who started as a true freshman last year at right tackle but has since moved to left tackle. He has immense talent, having earned honorable mention All Pac-12 as a true freshman. Left guard Jeremiah Tofaeono (6'2, 320) and Center Vyncent Jones (6'3, 305) are the two seniors among the five starters, with Tofaeono returning from a knee injury that sidelined him for six games last year. Junior guard Junior Salt (6'2, 325) and sophomore tackle Siaosi Aiono (6'2, 305) will man the right side of the line. Salt, actually, was intended to be a defensive tackle when he came in from a junior college, but moved to the offensive line last year during his redshirt season.
UCLA's defense came into the season with many saying that it was ready to take a leap forward after an up and down 2012 season, but, while we'd say there certainly has been a leap forward, it hasn't been quite as big as we would have expected. Much of that can be attributed to the defensive line, which has taken a step backward after a very successful 2012 season. With Datone Jones now in the NFL, and reserve defensive end Owamagbe Odighizuwa sitting out the year with a hip injury, UCLA has rotated a variety of defensive linemen through the three spots in front to try to find a good combination.
Primarily, UCLA has used Seali'I Epenesa at nose tackle, Cassius Marsh at one defensive end position, and a combination of Ellis McCarthy, Keenan Graham, and Eddie Vanderdoes at the left defensive end position. Marsh, after putting together a very impressive fall camp, hasn't yet made a consistent impact in games. He's slimmed down from the 270 pounds he weight last year, and it seems he's had some more difficulty dealing with defenses who are more focused on stopping him with Jones now gone. Epenesa has had some difficulties holding the point at times, but has largely been OK. On the left side, UCLA has actually had its most success, with Graham providing some of the biggest plays for the line this year, and Vanderdoes also living up to his billing. Really, you can boil down the issue to this: it's not easy replacing a player like Jones, who can find ways to make huge plays even through double teams. The Bruins are hoping that as the season wears on, one or more linemen will break out and provide more of that production.
The linebackers, on the other hand, have been about as impressive as expected. Anthony Barr has continued to look like one of the best defensive players in the nation. His sack totals may not project to be as large as last year, but that's more of a failure on stat counters part than anything. He has forced three fumbles so far this season, and each was a real forced fumble, with Barr either tackling a player so hard he coughed up the ball or being so disruptive in the backfield as to force the quarterback to give it up. He's living up to the preseason accolades. On the interior, Eric Kendricks and Jordan Zumwalt have both been solid, looking particularly good covering the edges when Barr or Myles Jack have rushed the passer. Jack, meanwhile, looks like he might have the most physical talent of any of the linebackers, and already looks like a polished, multi-year starter going into his fourth college game. As a unit, this might be one of the fastest linebacker corps in the Pac-12, which allows them to chew up offenses that work horizontally more than vertically.
Schematically, UCLA has had issues with the zone read, and it'll be interesting if the coaching staff changes anything up going forward. Currently, UCLA has primarily gone to a "scraping" strategy when defending the read, with either Jack or Deon Hollins dedicated to hitting the running back on the read, forcing the quarterback to run the ball. It hasn't been wholly successful this season, largely due to the backside coverage from either the inside linebackers or safeties on the quarterback, so we'll see if it changes up going forward.
We simply haven't seen the UCLA defense put together a complete enough game at this point to give the team the advantage against an at times explosive Utah attack. The Utes might have the best offensive attack that the Bruins have faced this year, especially with the way that Wilson has been able to run the ball in a variety of ways.
Going by what we've seen of the UCLA defense in the past against running quarterbacks, we'd have to imagine that one of the major strategies for UCLA going into this game will be limiting Wilson to the pocket and forcing him to be a pocket passer. He's much more comfortable in that role than, say, Taylor Martinez, but it would at least force him into being a more one-dimensional player. The problem is that Wilson has some effective weapons in the passing game, like Anderson, who may pose some real problems for UCLA's cornerbacks. If Wilson can sit comfortably in the pocket, we have to imagine he's going to be able to connect on some throws.
The Bruins do have some factors going for them. First, if the weather forecast holds, there is a chance of thunderstorms on Thursday, which could limit the passing attack of Utah. Second, as we said above, Erickson's offense has some real similarities to Mazzone's spread, which the defense has faced in practice for the last two years. However, this is doubtless the biggest test for UCLA's young secondary to date, and probably the defense as a whole.
It seems like most teams UCLA has faced this year have been breaking in new kickers, and Utah is no exception. The Utes will use freshman Andy Phillips (5'11, 210) on both kickoffs and field goals. Phillips has been perfect on field goals and extra points this year, going 7 for 7 with a long of 45 on field goals and 21 for 21 on points after.
Sophomore Tom Hackett (6'0, 187) returns as the punter. He's already much improved from last year, with a 43.8 average per punt as well as nine punts downed inside the 20.
The Utes will use sophomore wide receiver Geoffrey Norwood (5'8, 178) on punt returns and freshman receiver Delshawn McClellon (5'9, 166) and sophomore defensive back Charles Henderson (5'9, 185) on kickoffs. Norwood hasn't broken a big one on punt returns, but admittedly has only taken nine in two years. McClellon is potentially a real weapon on kickoffs. He's Utah's second fastest player, with a recorded 4.38 40. He certainly seems due for a big return at some point this season.
UCLA is the inverse of Utah, with a freshman punter and a second year place kicker. Sean Covington, aside from one muffed snap this year, has been very good for a freshman punter, even if he's only punted the ball three times. Ka'imi Fairbairn has been up and down, but he wasn't helped by windy conditions at Nebraska that limited his effectiveness. By and large though, it's clear he still has work to do on his accuracy. He has a strong leg, though, so it seems like a matter of time before he puts everything together.
On returns, UCLA has used Steven Manfro on kickoffs and Shaquelle Evans on punts. Evans has been shockingly effective as a punt returner, and is actually one of the national leaders in punt return yardage per game. Manfro just had a 70 yard return against New Mexico State, and the coaching staff hopes that it will provide him with the boost in confidence necessary to start showing what he does in practice in games.
There's no getting around it: looking at the factors heading into Utah on Thursday, this may be UCLA's most difficult test to date this season. Defensively, the Utes have a strong front, probably stronger than UCLA has faced this year, and offensively, there's little doubt that this is the most dynamic attack the Bruins have gone up against. Combined with going to Utah, where it may be pouring rain at game time, for a Thursday night game when the Utah fanbase will no doubt be very loud, it's likely going to be a tough situation.
If this were a different era, actually, it'd be easy to pick UCLA to lose. A nationally ranked Bruins team heading into a hostile environment when they may be looking ahead to a showdown with a top 5 Stanford team in two weeks? Under Rick Neuheisel or Karl Dorrell, that'd be the premise for a three touchdown blowout loss.
Thankfully, UCLA fans no longer live in that perpetual waking nightmare of a decade, so there's an expectation that the Bruins will play up to their ranking a bit more. Still, even last year, the Bruins struggled at times on the road, particularly against California and then against Washington State in hostile conditions, and we could see them not having the easiest time in the world against Utah, especially when you factor in the weather.
Still, we anticipate UCLA being able to play well offensively, and, going purely by the strengths of each team, we could see a scenario where thunderstorms might actually help the Bruins. UCLA likely has a better rushing attack than Utah, and if rain is a factor, you could see both teams trying to pound the ball. If rain is not a factor, we think UCLA can put up a good amount of points on the Utes, and it'll simply be a question of whether the Bruins can do enough to slow down Erickson's offense.
It's a tricky game to pick. In a vacuum, without considering the weather or the road environment, we'd likely predict a 10 to 14 point win for UCLA. On the road, with some adversity, it's going to be interesting to see how the Bruins respond. In many ways, this game could be a great bellwether for how the rest of the Pac-12 season, particularly the road games, could go. If the Bruins look as strong against Utah as they have against the Ne section of the college football dictionary, then UCLA could be in for a very big season.