Utah’s Offense vs. UCLA’s Defense
Utah has had no continuity on the offensive end for quite some time, with the Utes once again having a new offensive coordinator this year in the tandem of Aaron Roderick and Jim Harding. Roderick has been on staff since 2005, but Harding is relatively new to the Utes, having been hired just before the 2014 season. Running backs coach (and assistant head coach) Dennis Erickson still has a big hand in the offense, and the overall scheme hasn’t changed much from years past.
The offense is better this year than it was a year ago, but it shouldn’t be confused with one of the elite offenses in the Pac-12. The Utes are averaging about 2.4 points per drive and 5.4 yards per play, both pretty average numbers by national standards, but both considerable steps up from a season ago, when the Utes averaged 1.91 points per drive and just 5.0 yards per play. The rushing offense actually hasn’t improved, and has even taken a step back in conference play (the Utes are averaging 4.3 yards per carry, but just 4.1 in conference play), but the passing offense has actually become halfway decent, with Utah averaging 7.2 yards per attempt after averaging 6.4 a year ago. Utah is actually averaging 7.8 yards per attempt in conference play, which is a very healthy number.
From a personnel standpoint, Utah has a ton of experienced players, beginning with senior starting quarterback Travis Wilson (6’7, 233). Wilson has become a really credible Pac-12-level quarterback as a senior after being wildly inconsistent in his first three years. He’s had one really bad game all year, against USC at the Coliseum, but has otherwise been mostly effective for the Utes. He is completing 66.3% of his passes this year, a full 6% more than a year ago, and he’s actually averaging half a yard more per attempt. He has thrown nine interceptions against just 12 touchdowns, but four of those picks came against USC. What makes Wilson dangerous is his ability to hurt teams with his legs. This year, he has run for 367 yards on 95 carries (a 4 yard average), and he has some real wheels for a big guy. He’s not the best intermediate and short thrower, but he can connect deep as he has a nice long ball. Obviously, last year, Utah burned UCLA when it transitioned to senior quarterback Kendal Thompson (6’2, 195) early in the game, but Utah hasn’t used him nearly as much this year, so we wouldn’t anticipate them going to that strategy again.
Wilson is joined in the backfield by senior running back Devontae Booker (5’11, 212). Given the volume of carries this guy has had the last two years, it’s amazing he’s still upright at this point of the season, but he definitely appears to be wearing down some. He’s had 34 carries in each of the last two games, which is a really heavy workload, especially considering that he typically catches the ball at least three or four times per game. He actually had to miss a quarter last week due to injury and is questionable for this week. In any case, he’s still been very effective this year, averaging 4.7 yards per carry on his 268 carries (good for a cool 1261 yards). It’s a step back from his 2014 average, though,w hen he averaged 5.2 yards per carry. He is a complete back, with good speed, great toughness, great vision, and great hands out of the backfield. If he’s unable to go or is limited, Utah will probably go with junior Joe Williams (5’11, 200), but he’s done basically nothing this year, carrying the ball just 19 times for 78 yards. How’s this for a stat? Booker and Wilson account for an astounding 85.1% of Utah’s carries this year.
The offensive line has been decent this year, though senior center Siaosi Aiono (6’2, 310) has been nursing a hand injury that’s forced him to snap with his off hand. It’s a pretty experienced group with generally good size and athleticism, but they do miss Jeremiah Poutasi a little bit at tackle. Aiono has been probably the best lineman for the Utes this season, and has done a great job of keeping the line organized. The left side is manned by junior tackle Sam Tevi (6-5, 300) and junior guard Isaac Asiata (6’4, 315), while the right side stands with junior tackle J.J. Dielman (6’5, 300) and sophomore guard Salesi Uhatafe (6’4, 315). As a group, they’ve only given up 16 sacks this season, which is a pretty solid number (the Utes are 48th in the country in sack percentage with 16 sacks, since this is a run-heavy offense). Overall, it’s not an elite unit, but they do a healthy enough job of creating lanes in the run game and keeping Wilson relatively upright.
The receiving game centers around, essentially, two receivers, in freshman Britain Covey (5’8, 166) and senior Kenneth Scott (6’3, 208). Scott is a big, pretty fast target who can stretch the field at times, and he has 33 catches for 403 yards this year at three touchdowns. Covey has been a revelation, though. The diminutive receiver has played much bigger and much tougher than his size, and has developed into one of the most dynamic playmakers in the Pac-12, with big plays as both a punt returner and as a receiver. He had 518 yards on 41 catches, including four touchdowns and a long of 66 yards. He can make guys miss in the open field, and is both quick and fast. He’ll be a tough cover for UCLA. Senior James "Bubba" Poole (6’1, 197), who started out his career at Utah as a running back, also plays some slot behind Covey and sometimes lines up in the backfield. Beyond that group, many of the throws in this offense end up directed to Booker, who is the second-leading receiver on the team with 37 catches (behind Covey). Freshman Tyrone Smith (6’4, 188) is the other starter on the outside, and he has 15 catches for 152 yards. With his size, he can present a mismatch for smaller corners.
UCLA’s defense shut out Oregon State two weeks ago and held Washington State well below its season averages in many categories last week, but when it mattered most, the UCLA defense broke, giving up a 75-yard touchdown drive in 1:06 to give the Cougars the win.
For much of the game, UCLA was getting excellent pressure with just its front four. Nose tackle Kenneth Clark had an excellent game, with three sacks and a number of times where he flushed Luke Falk with just the force of his pass rush. UCLA’s secondary, though, struggled a little bit more, with Ishmael Adams, Johnny Johnson, and the safeties all struggling more than they have recently against the sheer onslaught of passes from the Cougars.
UCLA is getting a bit healthier on the defensive side this week. Isaako Savaiinaea, who has missed the last few games after suffering a high ankle sprain a few weeks ago, has practiced this week and could play. Johnny Johnson, who suffered from a sort of neck spasm last week against Washington State, has also practiced this week and could play. If both players could go, that would go a long way toward winning this side of the matchup against Utah.
Utah’s offense is no great thing, and with Booker banged up, it’s difficult to assess what, exactly, the Utes currently do well. Wilson has been better this season, but if Utah relies on him to pass the ball 35+ times in this one to make up for Booker being hurt, that’s not a good sign for the Utes, who just don’t have the scheme or personnel to be a high-volume throwing offense.
The issue for us is that we also can’t give UCLA the advantage. Even if Booker is out for this game, UCLA has had such a tough time defending rushing attacks this year, particularly ones with quarterback runs as a key element, that we don’t have a ton of confidence in their ability to do so in this game. Inside linebacker play has been a big question mark at times this year, and that position will be especially key against Utah’s rushing attack, which uses the zone read a fair amount.
We have some confidence in UCLA’s ability to get a rush on Wilson. Clark is playing at a high enough level, and UCLA has gotten quality enough play from Deon Hollins, Takkarist McKinley, and even Aaron Wallace on the edge to keep Wilson from getting too comfortable in the pocket. The issue is that Wilson can be a decisive runner, and if UCLA gives him the kind of space the Bruins gave Falk last week, Wilson could gobble up huge chunks of yards.
Overall, we think UCLA will be able to curtail Utah’s passing attack and force the Utes to be one-dimensional. The question is really whether UCLA can stop that one dimension. At this point, that’s a hard thing to bet on, so we’ll say that Utah puts together some drives thanks to Wilson’s legs and UCLA’s struggles to defend the run.