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.
Utah’s Defense vs. UCLA’s Offense
The main driver for Utah’s surge over the last two years has been the play of the defense. Last year, Utah had one of the best defenses in the Pac-12, and this year, the Utes have once again been one of the top units in the conference. Despite bringing in a new defensive coordinator to replace the departed Kalani Sitake, this is still very much Kyle Whittingham’s defense.
Utah’s defense is a stout, very good unit this season. Last season the Utes allowed 1.66 points per drive (20th in the country), while this year Utah is allowing 1.69 (30th in the country). Last year, Utah allowed 3.7 yards per rush attempt, and this year the Utes allows 3.6 (21st in the country). Last season, the Utes allowed 7.4 yards per pass attempt, and this year Utah is allowing 7.0 (52nd in the country, but 4th in the Pac-12). It’s not an elite defense, but it’s very good, and by Pac-12 standards, it’s probably one of the top two or three defenses in the league, depending on what metrics you’re using to judge it.
Utah’s front seven, particularly its defensive line, is the strength of the team, and that’s despite junior defensive end Hunter Dimick (6’3, 270), who was the starter at the beginning of the year, missing almost half the season due to injury. He’ll return this week in likely a limited capacity. In his stead, though, junior Kylie Fitts (6’4, 268) has started at left end and looked good. Fitts, who obviously spent a year at UCLA before transferring, has 4.5 sacks this season, the most of any starter, and has also tipped a number of balls at the line of scrimmage with his very active hands. On the opposite end, Utah will start senior defensiv eend Jason Fanaika (6’3, 270), who has been very good against the run this season. He has 7.5 tackles for loss, including 2.5 sacks of his own. The two defensive tackles are very stout run stoppers, with sophomore Lowell Lotulelei (6’2, 302) being the potential star of the two. His fellow tackle, sophomore Filipo Mokofisi (6’3, 285) has been banged up a little bit recently, but he should still play. Utah has a pretty deep rotation of defensive linemen, and guys like junior tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu (6’1, 320) and senior tackle Wiliseni Fauonuku (5’11, 285) are sure to get time in the tackle rotation. Watch out for junior defensive end Pita Taumoepenu (6’1, 240), who is a bit of a pass rush specialist and already has six sacks in limited snaps this year.
The linebacker corps features Utah’s best player, senior linebacker Gionni Paul (5’10, 225). Though undersized, Paul is a really tough player who’s a sure tackler with very good lateral agility and good speed. His stat line is, honestly, kind of silly — the rover linebacker has 86 tackles this year (leads the team), twelve tackles for loss (leads the team), three sacks (third on the team), three interceptions (tied for second on the team) and three fumble recoveries (tied for first on the team). He’s an all-around linebacker, with the ability to play against the run, rush the passer, and even drop into coverage. Senior middle linebacker Jared Norris (6’2, 240) has been banged up recently and didn’t look completely healthy last week against Arizona. Norris is a key player for the Utes, as he’s the second-leading tackler on the team, and is counted on to be a bit of a run stuffer in the middle. Those two players generally stay on the field even in nickel situations. When Utah goes with a base defense, senior Jason Whittingham (6’2, 245) comes in as the Spur linebacker, and he’s solid against the run as well.
The secondary has gotten progressively more banged up for Utah as the season has gone along, and heading into this one, senior starting safety Tevin Carter (6’1, 215) and junior starting cornerback Reginald Porter (5’11, 184) could both be limited. Carter has missed parts of the last three games with a variety of ailments, while Porter sat out last week with an injury. He’s expected back against UCLA, but how effective he is remains unknown. Carter is somewhat of a linchpin for the Utes. He’ll often roll into the box to help out in the running game, and he’s been effective for the Utes doing so this year, with 4.5 tackles for loss this year alone. That’ll often leave sophomore safety Marcus Williams (6’0, 190) as the last line of defense in the back of the defense, but he has seemed comfortable back there, with four interceptions this season and six passes defended. Porter and fellow cornerback Dominique Hatfield (5’10, 175) have been fairly good this year, despite not having a ton of experience as starters. They both give up a little bit in size, but it hasn’t affected the Utes too much this season. It’s very hard to hit receiver screens on the corners because, first, they’re very good in press coverage, and second, the safeties and linebackers get upfield so quickly and react so well that even a perceived advantage on the outside can quickly turn into an advantage for the defense. The nickel is junior Justin Thomas (5’8, 178), who leads the team in passes defended with 7 and also has three picks this year. If teams can put him in a mismatch, though, they’d be well served to, since he gives up so much height to even average-sized receivers.
Utah has generated a ton of turnovers this year, with 16 interceptions and 9 forced fumbles. The Utes haven’t been quite as good as last year at rushing the passer, when the Utes were the best in the country. This year, Utah is sacking the opposing quarterback just 6.62% of the time, while last year the Utes had sacks on a mind-boggling 11.06% of dropbacks.
UCLA’s offense was very good between the 20s last week, but really had a hard time in the red zone. UCLA settled for two field goals from about the five-yard line after attempting to finish a couple of drives with a jumbo package filled with defensive players. That proved unsuccessful, and, given that the Bruins lost by 4 points, you could point to either of those failed touchdown drives as the reason for the loss, if you’re so inclined.
On the positive side, though, UCLA received an excellent performance from Josh Rosen, who has rapidly become one of the top quarterbacks in the Pac-12. Though his stats wouldn’t necessarily indicate it, last week may have been his best game. Despite being under fire for much of it, he didn’t take a sack, and instead turned a handful of what should have been disastrous plays into positive ones for UCLA. He is playing with great poise right now, and appears set up for for a very nice finish to his first season as the starting quarterback.
Paul Perkins and the running game was fairly good as well last week. Perkins is very quietly putting together another excellent year for the Bruins, with 1082 yards on 180 attempts for a cool six yards per attempt. He got a little banged up against California three weeks ago, but finally seemed healthier this past week against Washington State, when he ran for 121 yards on 20 carries and also had four catches for 28 yards. His workload is down a bit from a year ago, so hopefully his legs have been preserved pretty well for the final run.
The offensive line has seen some shuffling in recent weeks, with Kolton Miller jumping into the startling lineup at right tackle, Caleb Benenoch sliding to right guard, and Kenny Lacy moving to the bench. So far, the results have been a bit of a mixed bag. UCLA’s offensive line has had an unbelievable amount of false starts in the last two games, and last game, the Bruins weren’t particularly good in pass protection, especially on the right side. Rosen can’t be counted on to duck and shimmy out of pressure as much as he did last week every week, so UCLA’s offensive line is going to have to hope last week was an aberration.
Thomas Duarte had the flu last week which limited his effectiveness against Washington State. Duarte should be fully healthy this week, which could be critical against a tough Utes defense that has been susceptible to passes over the middle.
This is the matchup of best on best for this game, and it’s difficult to determine who has the clear advantage. The Utes are fairly stout against the run, but they’re not quite Arizona State-level in that department, so UCLA should be able to find some running room throughout the game, as long as the Bruins are smart about it.
In the passing game, Utah plays the quick outside passes fairly well, so the receiver screen might not be there, which could cause UCLA’s offensive rhythm some issues. That said, Utah’s defense has been susceptible to passes up the seam and over the middle, particularly when the Utes go with a single high safety, which could mean a big day for Thomas Duarte.
The main reason this is an even matchup for us, though, is the play of Rosen lately. The freshman quarterback looks very little like a freshman anymore, and we’ve become pretty confident in his ability to put up good offensive performances even against solid competition. Utah’s defense hasn’t been great at getting to the passer either, which could allow Rosen some breathing room to get comfortable.
It’s a tough matchup, though, without a doubt, and we can imagine that Kyle Whittingham will do everything possible to stop the running game and force this one into Rosen’s hands. In the 11th game of his college career, we’ll see if the talented quarterback is up to the challenge.
If someone wants to do a compilation video of UCLA’s special teams errors from Saturday scored by Yakety Sax, that would probably be fitting. UCLA “fumbled” a punt after deciding to field a punt at the five yard line, had a punt blocked, punted another punt straight out of bounds for zero yards, and then had to rush another punt when it looked like it was going to be blocked. About the only thing UCLA’s special teams has going for it is Ka'imi Fairbairn, who should win the Lou Groza award this year. He’s missed just one field goal and has the best touchback percentage in college football.
If Utah’s special teams were so-so, the Utes would have a big advantage over the Bruins, but instead, Utah actually has good special teams. Senior punter Tom Hackett (5’11, 195) has not kicked at quite the freak alien level he kicked at last year, but he’s been pretty good this season. He’s averaging 47.1 yards per punt with 18 of his 43 downed inside the 20 and just six touchbacks. Junior field goal kicker Andy Phillips (5’10, 210) is also a very good kicker, though not quite Fairbairn. He’s 18 of 22 this year with misses from 48, 46, 45 and 48. He’s made all 14 field goals from 44 and in, and has a long this year of 53 yards.
Covey, as we mentioned above, has been dynamic as a punt returner, with one touchdown and an 11.7 return average on 21 kicks. In the kick return game, junior Cory Butler (5’10, 175) has had some nice moments, with a touchdown of his own on just six returns, but Covey has begun to take over there as well. Covey is a real weapon in the return game and could cause UCLA’s coverage units, which haven’t been great this year, some real issues if Fairbairn doesn’t happen to put the ball in the end zone.
It was announced today that Booker will be out for the game with a meniscus tear, and while that doesn’t change much in terms of our analysis of each matchup (as we said above, we were anticipating him being at least limited), it does make it decidedly more difficult for Utah’s offense, which will now have to rely much more heavily on Wilson.
UCLA has had a tough time with even mediocre Utah teams over Jim Mora’s time at UCLA. The Bruins have generally had some pretty conservative offensive game plans against the Utes, with each game marked by a dogged determination to run the football (UCLA has averaged 50 carries in their match ups with Utah under Mora and just 23 passes). This game will also be played in cold weather, with the temperature likely dropping into the 30s by the end of this one.
That said, Utah losing Booker, who’s the Utes’ leading rusher and second-leading receiver, is big. As we said above, Utah doesn’t really have a backup running back — Williams has just 19 carries this year. Perhaps Utah could shift Bubba Poole back to running back, but that would be an act of desperation. Wilson has been better this year, but if Utah has to rely completely on him to win this game, that could be a very tough task for the sometimes erratic senior.
On UCLA’s end, the Bruins will have a hard time if they attempt to just establish the run early. Utah will likely sell out to stop the run and press much of the defense up toward the line of scrimmage. It’s very important for the receivers to get off the line of scrimmage quickly and beat press coverage to give Rosen easy opportunities early. If Rosen can loosen up the defense with some timely throws over the middle, that could open up the rushing attack later in the game.
With Booker out, this game, for us, ultimately comes down to which quarterback we trust more: Wilson, the experienced senior playing at home in his second-to-last regular season game? Or Rosen, the talented freshman phenom playing in a truly hostile environment, in the cold, with UCLA’s season and potential for a Pac-12 title very much hanging in the balance?
We’ll go with the phenom.