No one will write a song about it, and in 2000 years it's hard to imagine the story of it living on in our oral tradition, but UCLA did what it needed to do Saturday, beating No. 13 Utah 17-9 and preserving the Bruins' now very real chances of winning the Pac-12 South and earning a rematch with Stanford in the Pac-12 Title game.
Immediately after the low of losing to Washington State last week, it would have been hard to imagine a scenario where UCLA would mostly control a game, on the road, against the No. 13 team in the country, but the Bruins did just that. For an eight-point victory, this one didn't truly feel in doubt past the opening minutes of the second half, when UCLA kept Utah to a field goal and then drove down the field for a touchdown to, weirdly, ice the game with 5:17 left in the third quarter. Obviously, it helped that Utah was without Devontae Booker, but given the poor fortune UCLA suffered to start the year, the Bruins were due for a little bit of help.
It's stunning how good UCLA, under Mora, has become on the road. The Bruins have now won 14 of 15 road games, and that's nearing the point of absurdity, especially given how awful Rick Neuheisel was on the road (5 and 19, if you were wondering). This was a tough environment, arguably the toughest in the Pac-12, but UCLA, with a freshman quarterback, didn't seem flustered at all. UCLA didn't get called for a single false start, and had just one procedure penalty, an illegal formation called on Caleb Benenoch that appeared to be caused by freshman guard Fred Ulu-Perry having his feet a little mis-aligned. The Bruins didn't have a single turnover, and forced two against the Utes.
The story of Saturday's game was pretty clearly the defensive performance, particularly everything that happened after the first drive of the second half. UCLA gave up four long drives in Utah's first five drives, with the Utes driving the field for 5:28, 7:44, 4:26, and 6:21, and notching three field goals in that timespan. After giving up that six minute and 21 second drive to start the second half, though, UCLA forced Utah into four consecutive three-and-outs and capped the game with another forced fumble. During that stretch, UCLA seemed to turn much more to Aaron Wallace, who stepped up big with a sack and nine tackles for the game. Yes, Utah was without Booker, but, given the quality of the opponent, it was an excellent, sustained stretch of defensive football.
Really, even before that great second half, UCLA's defense was operating essentially how it is designed. Yes, the Bruins were getting gashed in the run game, but UCLA did a nice job of stiffening up at the end of drives to force Utah into field goals. In the meantime, Utah made a couple of mistakes, including what should have been an interception deep in Utah territory and the fumble, which actually stood. That's what bend-but-don't-break is designed to do -- force teams into long drives where more mistakes can happen, and then, if the defense can't force a turnover, stiffen up in the red zone and limit the opposing team to a field goal. The first drive of the second half was particularly good in this respect, with UCLA actually engineering a bit of a goal-line stand. Utah had the ball at the two-yard line with a full set of downs but was forced to settle for a field goal after three consecutive runs netted -2 yards. Matt Dickerson and Aaron Wallace came up huge during that stretch with stout play at the line of scrimmage, and that might have been the start of UCLA figuring things out against Utah's rushing attack. Utah managed just three total rushing yards over the Utes' last five drives after generating 194 in the first five drives.
This was one of the best performances of the year for UCLA's secondary. Jaleel Wadood and Randall Goforth made two of their best plays in run support of the season, with Wadood driving up field for an excellent stop on 3rd and 1 on Utah's second drive of the game and Goforth making a big stop of his own on 2nd and 10 on Utah's penultimate drive. The biggest positive sign, though, was the play of true freshman Nathan Meadors, who started the season as a safety but is looking more and more like a real option at corner with every passing week. He actually started the game for the Bruins and was really good in coverage, lining up across from Kenneth Scott fairly often. What stands out about Meadors is that rare feel for the game, especially as a true freshman -- he clearly has a knack for knowing when the ball is coming, turning, and getting his hands up to deflect. He had a near-pick on Saturday and two breakups. In total, Wilson connected on just 13 of 26 attempts for 110 yards, with no play longer than 20 yards.
Offensively, UCLA looked like it was poised to put an embarrassing number of points on the Utes after its opening two drives, with UCLA marching down the field with relative ease on a pair of long scoring drives. The first drive was a thing of beauty, with Josh Rosen connecting deep with Thomas Duarte twice, including the final one for a score. The throws weren't even perfect, but Duarte made two excellent plays on the ball to haul them in. The Bruins, recognizing Utah's stout front, came out with a downfield attack that was perfectly suited for exploiting Utah's weaknesses in the seam. The second drive was a little bit more of a struggle, with UCLA electing to go with the run a fair bit more and ultimately getting stymied on a couple of runs at the end of the drive which led to the field goal.
In watching the game again, it's a little more apparent why UCLA so quickly went to a more balanced attack against Utah, rather than letting Rosen sling it as much: he was getting absolutely rocked after just about every throw, complete or incomplete. He was taking huge hits, including one where the Utah defender placed his helmet pretty cleanly into Rosen's midsection and knocked the wind completely out of him. He did a great job of hanging in there during those two drives, and given the circumstances, he did a pretty nice job the whole game. He did look a little gun-shy on a couple of plays, including the missed 3rd down throw to Thomas Duarte, but that was understandable after the hits he took. Once again, UCLA had a few drops, though nothing like the disaster that was last week.
So, even though the rushing attack was nowhere near as effective as the passing game on Saturday, we completely get the decision to stick with the run through the end of the first half and into the second half, out of Rosen preservation if nothing else. It also looked as if UCLA wouldn't need much more than 17 to 20 points to beat the Utes, since Utah couldn't get into the end zone. It certainly wasn't the prettiest offensive performance, and we'd question the decision to punt on 4th and 1 from the UCLA 45 at the end of the first half (and we'll continue to do so until everyone realizes that punting happens about two times more often than it should), but given the complexion of this game, the approach was understandable.
UCLA's offensive line, particularly at the guard spots, didn't have a great game. Early on, the left side really seemed to struggle dealing with the different types of pressure Utah was bringing and that led to a number of those early hits on Rosen. Obviously, UCLA had to mix and match a ton in this one, with Alex Redmond and Kenny Lacy starting the game, Fred Ulu-Perry coming in at one point for Redmond, and then Conor McDermott going down and Kolton Miller filling in for him. You can't, obviously, just blame the offensive line, since UCLA was often faced with that situation where the Bruins simply didn't have enough blockers to deal with the extra pressure Utah was bringing. Later on in the game, UCLA had Paul Perkins in on many more passing downs, and, it really should be noted, he has become excellent in pass protection. You'd need a couple of hands and both feet to count the number of times Perkins had just stood up a defensive player who outweighs him by 20+ pounds this season. Even on an off-night for him running the ball, he contributes in so many ways that it's hard to keep him off the field.
So, despite a truly baffling first 11 games of the season, UCLA finds itself in a familiar position: in control of its own destiny heading into the last game of the regular season. Last year, the Bruins, coming off the emotional high of beating USC, were not prepared for the physical pounding that Stanford gave them in the final week of the season and lost the game and the Pac-12 South in the process. This year, the Bruins have flipped the script, taking the physically pounding game first, and actually beating Utah, before heading into the final week against USC. Under Jim Mora, UCLA has traditionally been able to achieve a perfect emotional pitch heading into the annual matchup with the Trojans. If Mora has the Bruins peaking at the right time again this year, the Pac-12 Championship, and a shot at the Rose Bowl, is within their grasp.
For now, though, it's all about those gutty 7-4 Trojans.