This story is by BRO contributor, herenowucla.
By now everyone knows what to expect with the Utah program. Tough, hard-nosed, well coached, veteran teams year in and year out, for head coach Kyle Whittingham and staff in Salt Lake City. Whittingham has built this program from the lines out, particularly by finding the junior college linemen who are physically mature, and ready to come in and play from day one. Skill talent has always been a bit of an issue for the Utes, but this year’s team has some really effective weapons. Devontae Booker, the Utah running back, is the best back in the conference in my mind. He has been a workhorse back for them for two seasons now, and his absence in this game was a big break in UCLA’s favor. Booker and quarterback Travis Wilson accounted for over 80% of the Utes carries this season, so missing a big catalyst for their ground attack had a huge effect on what Utah could do offensively.
That being said, Utah still has one of the top defenses in the conference. It’s a veteran group that is strong in the middle, with a really physical front four and three veteran linebackers. Defensively, their philosophy is to bring pressure in a controlled and consistent way. Different than the philosophy of an Arizona State, this isn’t a defense that blitzes on every down. Rather, this is a defense that will almost always have 7 in the box, rush 5 the majority of the time, and heat it up on 3rd down. The Utah defense will vary the looks as well, sometimes using a pure 4-3, other downs using a 3-4 with more of a stand-up end. Teams have had some success against this year’s Utah defense by using 4 wide receivers and either forcing a linebacker onto a receiver and out of the box, or by getting one-on-ones by forcing Utah into cover 3. The biggest difference between this year’s Utah defense and the 2014 version is the lack of playmakers in the secondary. Utah lost two really good safeties from a year ago, guys who had a lot of versatility and could play down on the line of scrimmage and cover. This year’s Utah defense has a much weaker secondary and that was an area UCLA had to look to exploit going into the game.
UCLA’s Offense vs. Utah’s Defense: Touchdowns Beat Field Goals
There are really only two drives in this game that mattered for UCLA. The first drive of the game for UCLA’s offense was critical in setting the tone for the game. The game plan needed to be to get ahead of Utah and make them play from behind without Booker, and that is exactly what UCLA was able to do.
On the first play from scrimmage UCLA went deep, with quarterback Josh Rosen connecting with receiver Thomas Duarte for a 33-yard completion. On this play, UCLA put two receivers to the far side, with Duarte in the slot, and one receiver to the near side. Utah showed 7 men in the box with one safety in between the hash marks (cover 3). Rosen got the look he wanted and knew he’d have a one-on-one with Duarte coming off press coverage from Utah defensive back Justin Thomas. Duarte ran a stop-and-go route and ran right by Thomas in the seam. Rosen, who got great protection from his offensive line on this designed pass, threw a great ball and connected with Duarte for the big gain. This play set the tone for the UCLA offense on this drive as it loosened the coverage from Utah who immediately started giving cushions to the receivers. UCLA ran Paul Perkins to keep the Utah linebackers honest, and on the first third down of the game Rosen connected with Kenny Walker on a stop route for a big conversion. That route was available because of the completion to Duarte. Utah didn’t want to come out of their base defense early in the game, and really didn’t want to play nickel while UCLA was only using 3-receiver sets. So that forced Utah into cover 3, and because of the deep throw, they had to loosen up the coverage outside and give cushions. Walker and Rosen recognized it, and went to it on a big 3rd down when they needed to.
Later on in the drive UCLA began setting up Utah, knowing that, in cover 3, Utah couldn’t defend all three dimensions of UCLA’s offense. On first down UCLA ran a reverse to Walker out of a 2x1 set, with Nate Iese in the backfield. This forced Utah’s defensive backs to come up to the line of scrimmage to make a play sideline to sideline. On second down and 6, UCLA went to the same 2x1 set, using Duarte in the slot next to Walker, with Jordan Payton as the single on the near side. Again Utah showed 7 in the box with cover 3 behind, and Rosen connected with Duarte on an run-pass option (RPO) where the play-action froze the safety just enough for Duarte to beat the coverage. This play looked a lot like the play earlier in the drive that Rosen and Duarte connected on, the exception being that this was a packaged play, and Rosen was reading the Utah safety. As the safety froze on the play-action to Perkins, Duarte separated from the press coverage and Rosen hit him for the score.
This was a great opening drive for UCLA for a couple of reasons. The first reason is that UCLA has always emphasized taking an early lead on the road, and this scoring drive accomplished that. In a game where 20 points would probably get the win, UCLA got 7 points pretty easily. The drive was also important because it was clear that offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone and Rosen were able to see something in the Utah defense that could be exploited, and that was their secondary in man-to-man against the UCLA receivers. Probably something they could come back to later in the game when needed.
The other critical drive was UCLA’s first drive of the second half. Utah had just kicked another field goal to make it a 10-9 game, and clearly had the momentum. UCLA had, at different points in the first half, opportunities to blow this game open. If Rosen hits the deep ball to Walker in the second quarter, this game is probably over. If the UCLA interception in the first half isn’t nullified by a phantom pass interference penalty, this game is probably over. As it was, Utah trailed by 1-point with 8 minutes left in the third and had really started to chop up the game.
After a great kickoff return from Roosevelt Davis, UCLA had the ball at their 31-yard line, needing a score. Using the same formation as UCLA employed in the first half, they came out with a 2x1 receiver set and Iese in the backfield with Perkins. A first-down run play set up two RPO’s to Payton to take the ball to midfield. On second-and-1 Rosen kept the ball in a zone read and got a first down into Utah territory. That play set up a running lane for Perkins through the C-gap for a 9-yard gain on first down, and Utah was on their heels. The next play was a short first down run from Perkins and UCLA was in field goal territory.
At this point in the drive, Utah started to make adjustments. With UCLA in the same formation for the entire drive, the Utah linebackers started to disguise coverage for Rosen. On first down, the Utah linebackers dropped in coverage, after showing blitz on a designed rollout and defensive end Kylie Fitts batted the pass down for an incompletion. On second down Rosen thought he had his read for a slant to Payton off an RPO, but Payton tripped and the pass went incomplete. UCLA called a timeout before third down and came back onto the field with four wide receivers. Utah stayed in their base, but dropped their linebackers into zone and rushed four. Rosen wanted to go to the trips side with his first two reads, but he recognized zone and came back across the field to Payton on a comeback route for the first down. The timing of this pass and catch was amazing. Payton had man coverage with help over the top. His back was turned to the quarterback, yet he knew to cut off the route and the ball was delivered perfectly on time for a UCLA first down at the Utah 20-yard line.
The next play saw Perkins go for 6 yards, and the second down play was Perkins for 8 more yards. But Perkins ran into the knee of UCLA left tackle Conor McDermott and knocked him out of the game. So UCLA had a first down, but was now missing two starting offensive linemen in McDermott and guard Alex Redmond, who was hurt earlier in the game. Against this Utah front, the 8 yards needed for a touchdown was going to be tough missing two experienced linemen. During certain moments of a season, players make plays and effort is usually why. After an incompletion from Rosen, Perkins ran for 6 yards over the left side that looked like it was going to go for a loss. He followed that up with another effort run for the final two yards of the drive for the touchdown. That final eight yards might end up being the difference between a Pac-12 championship and a Fight Hunger Bowl appearance. If UCLA has to settle for a field goal there, it’s a totally different game with Utah being able to continue to pound the ball and eat the clock. UCLA was going to be challenged the rest of the game offensively without McDermott, so there wasn’t going to be a better chance to score a touchdown than at that moment. Credit to Paul Perkins for refusing to give in and finding a way to put the ball in the end zone.
The game plan was pretty good in this game from the offensive coaching staff. Utah is no joke defensively, especially up front. They pushed around the offensive line a lot in this game, but the offense did enough to stay ahead and keep a comfortable lead. Credit the staff for making enough adjustments to get the win against a team that won’t give you much.
Rosen to Payton is something that I am going to miss. Their chemistry is becoming something very special. I don’t think we as UCLA fans have seen anything like this since Cade McNown and Brian Poli-Dixon. They know where each other will be and have an amazing ability to always be on the same page. Congratulations to Jordan Payton on breaking the UCLA all-time career receiving record as well.
Perkins didn’t have the crazy stat line in this game, but in many ways this might have been his most complete game of the season. He carried the ball 28 times, which has to be close to a season high, and every one of his 98 yards was earned. The Utah defense makes you work for everything, and between Perkins’ yardage and his blocking, I thought he was the offensive MVP of this game.
Utah’s Offense vs. UCLA’s Defense: Bent But Never Broken
With Utah missing the majority of their offensive production (Booker out for the game and Britain Covey injured on the first series) this game rested on the shoulders of quarterback Travis Wilson. UCLA knew Utah would try and run it, using both Wilson and back-up running back Joe Williams, and had to stack the box with 6 and 7 in order to force Utah to pass. The UCLA secondary would need to have a big game as there was going to be a lot of man-to-man coverage required. UCLA was missing defensive back Johnny Johnson on Saturday, so true freshman Nathan Meadors got the start, and drew the match-up of Utah’s best receiver, 6th-year senior Kenneth Scott. That match-up doesn’t sound like a huge mismatch, but for an 18-year old like Meadors, who is a safety initially, to go up against a 23-year old in Scott, is a tall task. Fortunately for UCLA, Meadors was more than up to the challenge.
Utah is one of the more patterned offenses in the conference. Run, Run, Pass on third down, is the tendency of the Utah offense, and has been for several years now. For Utah, they’re able to be effective with that pattern because they run the ball so effectively using a lot of motion and zone blocking schemes, the lineage of which can be traced back to the old Miami days of assistant head coach Dennis Erickson.
For three quarters the Utah running game was very productive. Williams and Wilson rushed for 188 yards in this game, and the Utah offense had a 2-1 run-to-pass ratio. Pounding away at the UCLA front at about 4 yards per rush allowed Utah to eat up clock and keep their defense rested and UCLA’s offense off the field. At different points this felt like the Colorado game all over again, but when it counted, the UCLA defense stood tall in the red zone and forced the Utah defense to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns.
Utah had a very key drive early in the second quarter that on two separate occasions could have resulted in a touchdown. The first opportunity Utah had to score on this possession was on a deep ball to Scott, who was matched up one-on-one with Ishmael Adams. Scott out-jumped the smaller Adams, and came down with the catch in the end zone. To the amazement of every UCLA fan in the world, the Utah offense was called for holding, and the play was nullified. That play was the last play of the game where Scott was being defended by Adams from what I could tell.
The second chance Utah had to score a touchdown on this drive was on a first-down play, after converting a fourth down due to a hold by Marcus Rios. Utah broke their pattern of running on first down, and caught UCLA in a nickel package with their safeties up near the line of scrimmage. That look showed that UCLA was anticipating run off the motion read, but Wilson used the motion as play action and took a shot to Scott again, on a fly route in the end zone. This time, Meadors was in perfect coverage on Scott, got his head around and broke up the pass. To see a true freshman on an island like that being able to make the play, is really impressive, and that play almost single handedly kept the Utah offense out of the end zone on this drive. If Utah puts up 7 there instead of 3, this is a totally different game.
On Utah’s next drive, with the first-half clock ticking down, Utah took another shot at the end zone. On second and eight, coming out of a timeout, Utah caught UCLA in a nickel defense with press coverage outside. This drive was almost exclusively Wilson using the motion read to hurt UCLA with his legs, and this was a great down to take a shot on. UCLA showed 5 on the line of scrimmage and brought all of them, but each rusher was picked up by the assigned lineman for Utah, creating a clean pocket for Wilson. Utah also released their tight end, which forced UCLA safety Randall Goforth to match up on him. Goforth getting the tight end forced the other UCLA safety Jaleel Wadood to give help over the top to the three receivers in pattern for Utah to the wide side of the field, leaving Meadors all alone again on Scott down the near side.
The last time Utah took this shot at Meadors he was off on a ten-yard cushion, which is easier for a DB to get in position on as he’s facing the receiver off the line and can see the quarterback. Off a cushion the DB just has to engage, turn his head and find the ball. Out of press coverage this is a totally different challenge, as the DB has to run with the receiver without turning his head for as long as he can. In the red zone, like this play was, the DB is as vulnerable to the back shoulder throw as he is to the deep ball, so there is very little margin for error in this situation and you just have to trust your technique and make a play. Meadors did just that, and as the ball was thrown he was in such good position it looked like he could have possibly made an interception. Scott broke it up and the pass was incomplete. That put Utah in a 3rd-and-long and eventually led to a field goal after which UCLA wound down the first half with a 10-6 lead. Because of two critical plays from Meadors the crowd was quiet, the momentum was neutralized and the Bruins had a halftime lead in a game where 8 points ended up being the difference.
Meadors obviously was the player of the first half defensively for UCLA, but in the second half I liked the way UCLA rotated the defensive line personnel. It looked like they took out Eli Ankou for Matt Dickerson and pulled Deon Hollins in favor of Aaron Wallace more, and it made a big difference. As the clock wound down, Utah eventually had to throw and couldn’t be content to run zone read with Wilson all game. That was where the quickness of Dickerson, when combined with Takkarist McKinley, really took over. Wilson loves to work to his first read and UCLA took that away in the second half. When the read wasn’t there, the speed of the UCLA defensive line forced Wilson to flush the pocket early and resulted in a lot of broken plays that didn’t go anywhere. The actual adjustments aren’t real clear from the TV broadcast, but that’s what it looked like to me, and it had a nice effect.
A lot of credit has to go to the UCLA defensive coaches in this game. Sure, Utah was short-handed without Booker and Covey, but UCLA stacked the box as much as they have all season, and forced the quarterback to beat them with verticals. The UCLA secondary was up to the task, and as the game wore on the coaches made the necessary calls to keep Utah off balance. I counted 5 blitzes in the fourth quarter alone, and even though not all of them got home, it kept Wilson from getting comfortable and broke the rhythm of the Utah offense.
Bend-but-don’t-break has been the story all season defensively for UCLA, and this game was the best example of how it can be effective. I don’t think USC will be as one-dimensional as Utah is right now, so you’d have to expect more risk-taking against the Trojans from UCLA. But in this game the game-plan was perfect for the opponent, and credit to the staff for effective high-level game planning for Utah.
Conclusion: Head Crosstown For All The Chips
UCLA is still in position to play Stanford for the Pac-12 title, and that has to be celebrated given the insane levels of injuries this team has had to endure. Jim Mora and staff, albeit not always pretty, have put the Bruins in the hunt in late November once again. Beating USC puts this team in a position to go to the Rose Bowl with a win over Stanford, and no matter how unlikely that sounds, credit the staff and the players for overcoming the adversity to be in this position.
USC is such an enigma that it’s hard to predict how UCLA will fare against them. USC is a team with more recruiting stars than actual college-level production, and at first blush I think UCLA matches up very well with them. Anything can happen in a rivalry game, and with Pac-12 officials it usually does, but regardless of what happens next weekend I think we all should recognize the degree of difficulty of what this UCLA team has accomplished in 2015. UCLA probably made it harder than it needed to be, and all of us want the Arizona State and Washington State games back, but here we are, at the end of the year with chips on the table and something to play for. Not much more we as fans can ask for than a meaningful game across town with the “gutty, little” Trojans.