The only constant for Utah’s offense over the last few years has been inconsistency, both at the helm and on the field. The Utes have gone through seven offensive coordinators in the last seven years, with the most recent fellow getting a turn at the wheel being Dave Christensen, the former Wyoming head coach. He replaced Dennis Erickson, who’s actually been retained on staff as the running backs coach, of all things. So far, the results of the switch have been mixed.
In the first two games of the season, Utah’s spread offense appeared to be very efficient and effective, scoring basically at will against both Fresno State and Idaho State. Of course, Idaho State is not an FBS program, while Fresno State has already suffered three blowout losses to FBS opponents this year. In the two games that are a bit more indicative of the quality of opponent Utah will face the rest of the year, the offense has stagnated. Against both Michigan and Washington State, the Utes averaged a paltry 4.5 yards per play and failed to get their best playmakers involved in the offense.
With his struggles, there has been some talk that junior Kendal Thompson (6'2, 192), the dual-threat backup, could get a longer look. Kyle Whittingham said after the game that he wished he’d gotten Thompson more time against the Cougars, which could bode well for the quarterback against UCLA. He’s a dual-threat, but his decision-making is reportedly spotty, and he can be a little erratic throwing the ball.
Junior running back Devontae Booker (5'11, 203) has emerged as a real threat out of the backfield. The junior college transfer is starting in his first season of eligibility for the Utes, and so far has looked very impressive. On the year, he’s been consistent and explosive, averaging 6.5 yards per carry, including a long 76-yard touchdown run against Washington State. He is fast, strong, and runs with good power for his size. He was about the only reason, aside from senior receiver and kick returner Kaelin Clay (5'10, 193), that Utah was in the game against the Cougars, gaining 178 yards on the ground on 24 carries. It was the first game where he was really the featured back, and he made the most of it. The expectation going forward is that he’ll get the vast majority of the carries. Behind him, junior Bubba Poole (6'1, 197), the starter from last year, hasn’t been extremely effective through the first four games, but does provide an experienced backup to give Booker a breather. Despite his height, he doesn’t run with as much power as Booker.
At receiver, senior Dres Anderson (6'2, 190), junior Kenneth Scott (6'3, 208), and Kaelin Clay form a fairly talented triumvirate at the top. Anderson was the leading receiver on the team a year ago, and despite not recording a catch against Washington State, is off to a pretty good start in 2014, with 13 catches for 252 yards (an explosive 19.4 yards per catch). He hasn’t been as consistent getting open or catching the ball, though, which could be a combination of things, including defenses focusing more on stopping him. He had two critical drops against the Cougars. Scott missed all but a few minutes of the opener last year with an injury, but has come back and looked good through the first few games, catching 21 balls for 225 yards. He’s a bigger, stronger receiver, which provides a nice complement to Anderson. Clay, the return specialist, has seen a growing role on offense over the last couple of games. He has eight catches on the year for 91 yards, but he’s a danger to break a big one at any point. To show how thin Utah is, walk-on junior Tim Patrick (6'5, 190) is also a prominent member of the rotation. He’s shown some ability as a possession receiver with his size and length. Senior Westlee Tonga (6'4, 244), the tight end, is the other major part of the receiver rotation. The senior is already 26 years old, having taking a mission immediately after high school and then sitting out much of last year with an injury, for which he was granted a hardship waiver.
Many of Utah’s issues offensively have stemmed from a sheer lack of talent along the offensive line. While junior Jeremiah Poutasi (6'6, 330) is a talented player at left tackle who could start for many Pac-12 teams, the rest of the line is not particularly good, especially on the right side. Sophomore right tackle J.J. Dielman (6'5, 290) and sophomore right guard Isaac Asiata (6'4, 316) have had significant issues in pass protection all year, looking slow-footed and unsound technically. Junior center Siaosi Aiono (6'2, 305) has been OK, and senior left guard Junior Salt (6'2, 315) has benefited from playing next to Poutasi, but as a whole, the group has been poor at pass-blocking all year. It’s a generally big offensive line, though, which has lent itself somewhat to run-blocking, opening up some significant holes for Booker and Poole.
UCLA’s defense has been the subject of much debate through four games. While you might be inclined to say that the first game against Virginia was a good showing from the defense, the last three games have been up and down, with a mediocre showing against Memphis, a decent game against Texas, and then what can best be described as a mixed performance against Arizona State. The Sun Devils racked up over 600 yards of offense, but took over 100 plays to do it — not a great average yardage allowed, but not absolutely dreadful, particularly given the heat and the quality of Arizona State’s offense.
There are some specific issues that UCLA will probably need to address going forward, though. UCLA, through four games, has opted for a bit of a passive approach to defense, generally allowing teams to complete short passes while not blitzing very much. It’s a justifiable strategy in a sense, particularly against teams like the Sun Devils that have explosive offenses designed to take advantage of over-pursuit and pressure, but the execution has been lacking. First, UCLA has not been able to successfully and consistently pressure the quarterback with just three or four rushers, and second, the secondary has not played well enough to compensate for the lack of pass rush.
One thing the defense has been good at is generating opportunistic turnovers and points. Ishmael Adams now has two interception returns for touchdowns, and the defense as a whole has scored four touchdowns. Of course, turnovers are considered to be fairly flukey, statistically speaking, so counting on significant scoring from the defense throughout the year would probably be foolish.
UCLA made some moves in the secondary that seemed to pay off to a certain extent against ASU, with Anthony Jefferson dropping down to cornerback and Ishmael Adams moving to safety. Jefferson looked good covering Jaelen Strong — so good, in fact, that we’d guess the move becomes something of a permanent switch. UCLA moves around a good amount in the secondary, so Jefferson and Adams will both play a variety of positions, but we’d imagine both will get their first looks on Saturday at corner and safety respectively.
It might be a bit of a stretch to give UCLA the advantage defensively against any team given the way it has underperformed on the side of the ball at points this year, but there are some aspects of this matchup that point pretty firmly in the Bruins’ direction.
First, Utah does not protect the quarterback very well. If ever there was an offensive line that UCLA could attack effectively with a four-man rush, this would be it. Hollins, in particular, could get multiple sacks matching up against Utah’s right side.
Second, UCLA’s strength up the middle should cause some issues for Utah’s running game. Clark and Vanderdoes both looked very good against ASU, and we’d imagine they’ll be able to force Utah to mostly work the edges of the defense.
Even if UCLA were to use the exact same defensive strategy that it used against ASU (using only very occasional blitzing to go along with mostly passive coverage on the outside), we’d have to imagine that the Bruins would have a great deal more success, since Utah’s offense, particularly its offensive line, is nowhere near as good as the Sun Devils’. If UCLA actually does blitz to some greater extent, we could see the Bruins rattling Wilson early and pushing him into another downward spiral.