• UCLA opens its home Pac-12 schedule this Saturday, Oct. 4 against Utah, with kickoff set for 7:36 p.m., and the game being televised on ESPN.
• UCLA is 4-0 (1-0 in the Pac-12) and ranked #8/#9.
• Utah is 3-1 (0-1) on the 2014 season. The Utes won their first three games, at home against FCS Idaho State (56-14), at home against Fresno State (59-27) and on the road at Michigan (26-10). They lost their Pac-12 opener last weekend at home to Washington State, 28-27.
• UCLA leads the overall series, 10-2, and are 6-0 in Pasadena against the Utes. UCLA has won the last two meetings between the teams – since Utah has been in the Pac-12. In 2012, the Bruins won at home, 21-14, and in 2013 won in Salt Lake City, 34-27.
• While statistically it appears UCLA has dominated Utah in the all-time series, the Utes have been a bit of a problem for the Bruins. In 2007, Utah destroyed #7-ranked UCLA in Salt Lake City, 44-6. UCLA played perhaps one of its worst games of the season in 2011 against Utah, losing on the road, 31-6. In the last two years UCLA has beaten the Utes but has struggled in doing it, winning by a combined total of 14 points.
• It’s the first time in 9 years UCLA will play a home game in the Rose Bowl as a top-ten team. The last time was in 2005, when #8-ranked UCLA beat Oregon State, 51-28.
• The Bruins have now played as a ranked team for 23 straight games. UCLA was ranked in 25 straight contests in 1997-99.
• Before Jim Mora arrived at UCLA, the Bruins went from the beginning of the 2007 season through the beginning of the 2012 season without being ranked. In 2012, UCLA was ranked under Mora in his first year in his third game (#22 against Houston). UCLA was unranked from Sept. 15th, 2007, to the third week of Jim Mora's first season, Sept. 15th, 2012, so exactly five years to the day, encompassing 61 games. The game that knocked them out of the ranking in 2007 was the huge loss at Utah.
• UCLA currently has its longest win streak under Jim Mora, at six games. The last time UCLA had a longer win streak was in in 2005 when it began the season 8-0.
• If UCLA beats Utah, it will be the first time since 1966-1967 it began two seasons in a row 5-0.
• Brett Hundley became the first Bruin ever to throw for a score, run for a touchdown and catch a touchdown pass in a game last year against Utah.
• Under Mora, UCLA is 18-3 when scoring first, 10-0 when doing so at home, and is 20-0 when leading at halftime.
• Utah has 35 Californians on its roster, including 31 from Southern California.
• In games when a ranked UCLA team faced Utah, UCLA is 4-1, going back to 1956. The only upset was 2007 game in Salt Lake City, 44-6.
• Utah is 85-139-6 all-time against Pac-12 schools. The Utes only have a winning record against Arizona (20-17-2) but are either tied or trail every other Pac-12 school in their respective series.
• Utah is coached by Kyle Whittingham (54), in his 10th season at the helm of the Utes. After taking over in 2005, he pretty swiftly built Utah into a formidable program, going 13-0 in 2008, 10-3 in 2009 and 10-3 in 2010. The pinnacle came in 2008 when he led the Utes to that perfect record and finished the season ranked #4/#2. Since joining the Pac-12 in 2011, though, Utah hasn’t done well, going 21-20 overall and 9-19 in conference. A former defensive coordinator, Whittingham has always fielded good defensive Utah teams, but the offenses have been spotty and inconsistent. It got pretty bad when he hired former UCLA Offensive Coordinator Norm Chow in 2011. The Utes have basically been a program in search of an offensive coordinator, hiring another former head coach, Dennis Erickson, for the 2013 season and this year former Wyoming Head Coach, Dave Christensen. Starting the 2014 season 3-0, with the road win against Michigan, was creating some hope in Salt Lake City, with many of the Utah faithful believing this could be the year Whittinghame regains some of that late-2000s magic. But the heart-breaking loss last week at home against Washington State have revived some of the criticisms of Whittingham’s program this week. You’d have to think that, if Whittingham doesn’t post a winning record this season, making it three losing seasons in a row, his seat in Salt Lake City could get hot.
• Last week, Utah jumped out to a 21-0 lead against WSU, but socred just six points the rest of the way in the 28-27 loss.
• Utah is out-scoring its opponents 103 to 31 in the first half, but just 65-48 in the second half.
• UCLA is favored by 13 points.
• The weather could be a factor. Saturday looks like it could have San Bernardino-like heat, with a high of 100 degrees, while probably still in the low 90s by game time.
Utah’s Offense vs. UCLA’s Defense
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.
Utah’s Defense vs. UCLA’s Offense
Behind possibly only Stanford, the Utes have earned a reputation as having one of the most physical defenses in the Pac-12 over the last three years, with good front sevens and an aggressive scheme that can cause issues for the interior of offensive lines. While the personnel has changed, Utah has put together a few very good defensive performances this year, and present one of the tougher defensive challenges UCLA have faced this year.
Utah has blitzed a fair amount this year, even moreso than in previous years (likely due to some weakness on the interior). The Utes have shown a variety of blitzes all year, with players coming in from all angles, but they especially like to bring pressure up the middle into the face of the quarterback. Utah is averaging 4.5 sacks per game, which trails only Washington in the conference. While Utah would love to get pressure with its front four, last week the Utes were forced into a good amount of blitzing against Washington State, and it’s a good bet that they’ll need to blitz heavily again on Saturday.
The vaunted pass rush is led by senior defensive end/linebacker Nate Orchard (6’4, 255). Orchard has 4.5 sacks already this year, but he’s able to get pressure even more frequently, thanks to his size, athleticism, and strength. He’s filled in for departed do-everything hybrid Trevor Reilly, and has even dropped into coverage a few times when Utah goes with its nickel package. On the opposite side, sophomore Hunter Dimick (6’3, 266) is not quite the pass rusher that Orchard is, but he’s contributed with 2.5 sacks himself, along with stout run defense, and looks like he has some real upside. Junior Jason Fanaika (6’3, 270), Dimick’s backup at end, has been very effective as a pass rusher this year, with three already in limited time. Where the line may be vulnerable is along the interior, where junior Viliseni Fauonuku (5’11, 285) and junior Clint Shepard (6’2, 276) man the two defensive tackle spots. Shepard is a former walkon, but showed enough in camp that he earned a starting role. Neither player has played particularly well this year, and are a definite dropoff from previous interior linemen that Utah has had.
As for the secondary, much will hinge on whether senior safety Tevin Carter (6’1, 210) will be able to play. If he is, it helps with some of the depth issues, as true freshman Marcus Williams (6’0, 179) had to start in his place last week. Carter missed last week with an undisclosed injury, and there’s little word beyond Kyle Whittingham’s optimism whether he’ll truly be ready to go. Williams did not have a good game in his place, and didn’t look at all ready for such a prominent role, so it’s going to be key for Utah to get Carter back. Utah’s secondary really needs the depth, as there isn’t much talent beyond the starters, and the Utes get stretched thin when asked to play nickel or dime packages. The starting cornerbacks are senior Eric Rowe (6’1, 201) and sophomore Dominique Hatfield (5’10, 170), with Rowe probably the better of the two, though Hatfield has some real upside. Rowe converted from a three-year starter at free safety to cornerback this year, and so far the transition has gone OK, but he’s probably a more natural fit at safety. Teams have tried to attack him when he’s matched up in single coverage. At the strong safety spot, Brian Blechen (6’2, 210) returns for his senior season, having started for the last three years. Between Blechen and Rowe alone, the Utes have 70 combined starts. If Carter is able to go, the Utes should get quality safety play. The four starters probably make for a better than average Pac-12 secondary, but the question will be how they defend the multiple receiver sets of UCLA with very thin cornerback depth. Sophomore Justin Thomas (5’8, 178) is the nickelback, and he’s been solid against the run and the pass this year. Senior Davion Orphey (6’0, 185) is probably the primary backup at the two outside corner positions and he’s had some struggles this year.
UCLA had an offensive explosion against Arizona State last week, scoring 48 points as an offense on several explosive plays. Jordan Payton and Eldridge Massington both had 80-yard touchdown catches, while running back Paul Perkins had an 80+ yard run late in the 4th quarter. While the numbers came against what looks like a pretty bad defense, the way UCLA scored bodes well for the future.
Brett Hundley had arguably his best game as a Bruin, throwing for four touchdowns and running for one while completing 18 of 23 passes (and three of his incompletions were obvious drops). He was excellent with his pre-snap reads and was very accurate downfield. Despite wearing a pretty cumbersome brace on his left elbow, he didn’t seem hampered. Though he had a poor game to start the year against Virginia, he’s been very good since, with a near-perfect showing against Memphis (aside from one bad interception), a good start to the Texas game (before injuring his elbow), and then a masterful performance against ASU. If he continues to play at this level, the ceiling for UCLA’s offense raises quite a bit.
Of course, he was helped by the best offensive line performance UCLA has had this year. The Bruins were excellent in pass protection, allowing just one sack and very few real pressures. Kenny Lacy filled in for Alex Redmond at left guard late in the first quarter and the offense really started to hum at that point. Malcolm Bunche and Caleb Benenoch both played well on the edge, with Bunche playing probably his best game as a Bruin. As a whole, they gave Hundley a clean pocket which allowed him to complete several passes downfield.
The running game wasn’t needed as much with Hundley’s performance, but Paul Perkins again put together a more than respectable performance, capping his day with that 81-yard run. He’s quickly become the obvious No. 1 back on the team, and it’s easy to see his growing confidence as a runner every week.
This matchup is strength on strength, with a very good offense taking on a solid defense. Utah’s weaknesses, though, give UCLA some opportunities, especially given how well Hundley and the offensive line have played over the last couple of games.
First, Hundley was much better diagnosing the blitz against ASU than he’s been in his time at UCLA, and the offensive line did a much better job of picking it up. Will they be perfect against the Utes? Likely not, but we’d anticipate they give Utah a tougher test up the middle than they gave last year, when it seemed like Utah defenders were running free up the middle every down.
Lastly, with the amount that we anticipate Utah will need to blitz to generate the pressure they want on Hundley, there should be plenty of opportunities downfield for UCLA to take advantage of the thin Utah secondary. This could be another game where Jordan Payton, Eldridge Massington, and Thomas Duarte are able to generate some significant yards after the catch if they’re matched up in single coverage.
It’s a tough defense, and if Utah is able to run free of the edge with Orchard and Dimick and generate pressure with the front four, it’ll likely be a rough day for the offense. The play of UCLA’s tackles will be key in forcing Utah to blitz more and open up more opportunities downfield.
There’s an argument to be made that UCLA’s special teams and Utah’s special teams are the best units on their respective teams. Utah is obviously led by elite kick and punt returner Kaelin Clay. Clay has already returned four kicks for touchdowns this year, which is just absurd, and puts him on pace to shatter some records. He has excellent vision, a great burst, and more than enough speed to run past defenders. He’ll be, without a doubt, the toughest returner UCLA will face this year.
Utah’s kicking game is also elite, with sophomore placekicker Andy Phillips (5’10, 199) a legitimate candidate for best kicker in the country and junior punter Tom Hackett (5’11, 187) probably one of the best five or so punters in the country, with a mortar for a leg. He can drop punts inside the 10 with the best of them, and should be able to pin UCLA’s offense deep at times.
On the UCLA side, the Bruins have no slouch at returner in Ishmael Adams. Adams got his first touchdown return of his career last week, but he’s always a danger to break one. It’d be a fair argument to make that the two best returners in the country will be facing off in this game, but Clay probably gets the nod for his sheer production.
UCLA’s kicking game hasn’t been as solid as Utah’s, which is where this matchup turns in the Utes’ favor. Ka’imi Fairbairn has been better over the last two games, and it’s hoped that he’s starting to develop some consistency, but he’s nowhere close to the kicker that Phillips is at this point in his career. Punting has been a bit of an adventure, with JC transfer Matt Mengel and walkon Adam Searl both getting opportunities. Neither has been very good, with punts frequently going about 35 yards, but they did play better against ASU than they played earlier in the year.
Both teams cover kicks very well, and this game will probably prove a testing ground for which team is better, since this will be the toughest test of the year for both sides.
After playing three games on the road in the first four games of the season, and being on the road since Memphis in the second week of the season, the Bruins finally return home on Saturday night for the matchup with the Utes.
Utah has given UCLA fits over the last two years with physical, tough play on defense and just enough offense to hang with the Bruins. While you wouldn’t have said either last year’s Utah team or the previous year’s was very good, the Utes lost each game by just a touchdown, and both games were strange, dreary affairs which seemed to play more to Utah’s strengths.
This year, we’d anticipate UCLA being able to dictate a bit more how the game will go. First, Utah is not as strong on the interior of the defense as it has been in the past, which should allow UCLA to run more successfully than it has in the past. Second, Utah’s offensive line is fairly weak in pass protection, which should give UCLA the best opportunity it has had all year to generate a pass rush with just the front four.
Utah’s offense has been up and down this year, but against Power 5 conference opponents, it’s been mostly bad, and we’d anticipate that will continue, to a certain extent, against the Bruins on Saturday. With Hundley and the UCLA offense looking like they’re ready to jump to an elite level, Utah’s offense will need to keep pace, and we just don’t think they have the tools to do so.