UCLA's Offense vs. Utah's Defense
Let's just get this out of the way right now: this Utah team is like basically every Utah team you've watched for the last four years, just a more banged up version. The Utes are led by a good defense and their offense is passable enough. Scheme-wise, they're fairly similar to what they've always been, if with perhaps a little more nickel thrown in, and they once again have a talented front four that can do some damage without having to blitz too much.
From a statistical perspective, though, the Utes are actually fairly mediocre in terms of yards per rush attempt and yards per pass attempt, allowing 4.4 yards per carry and 7.2 yards per pass attempt, both middling numbers. Where they've actually excelled is in terms of getting pressure on the quarterback and forcing mistakes. The Utes are in the top ten in the country in takeaways per game, averaging 2.5 a contest, and they get a healthy amount of sacks and quarterback pressures. The biggest key going against this team is obviously to limit mistakes, as there is yardage to be gained against them.
They have been banged up, though, and in this game, they'll be down arguably their top defensive player in safety Marcus Williams, who was hurt last week against Oregon State and spent the last chunk of the game watching from the sidelines with a brace on his leg. Stalwart linebacker Sunia Tauteoli also was taken off the field with an injury last week and he'll also miss this week's game. Tauteoli was arguably the team's best linebacker, so that's a big loss. Even up front, the Utes have been dinged, with Kylie Fitts going down before the year began. And keep this in mind before we get to the offense: this is the relatively healthy side of the ball.
Up front, the Utes still have some considerable talent. Junior defensive tackle Lowell Lotulelei (6'2, 310) is a force in the middle, and one of the better interior run defenders in the country. He was a little dinged up at the beginning of the year but has been relatively healthy recently. He just eats up blocks on the interior and demands double teams frequently. He's paired with junior Filipo Mokofisi (6'3, 278) as his fellow starter on the interior, and Mokofsi has been a legitimate playmaker from that spot, recording three sacks already this season. It helps to line up next to Lotulelei, because Mokofsi can find himself in favorable match ups against a single interior lineman quite often. Senior defensive end Hunter Dimick (6'3, 272) is probably the best pass rusher among the starting defensive linemen, with five sacks this year, but he's also very good against the run, and it can be very difficult to run at his side. On the other end, senior Pita Taumoepenu (6'1, 245) gets the start, and he's more of a quick end and has three sacks of his own this year. Utah will mostly go with those four, with senior backup tackle Pasoni Tasini (6'3, 295) filling in at both tackle spots and having a great year in his own right, with 7.5 tackles for loss and a sack already this year.
Like we said up top, Utah will use a good amount of nickel, so, for the most part, only a couple of linebackers typically see a bunch of time. Until this past game, that means a heavy dose of Tauteoli, but with his injury, the linebacker corps is thrown into a little bit of flux. Sophomore Mac Linebacker Cody Barton (6'2, 232) will continue to start, but next to him will be junior JC transfer Kavika Luafatasaga (6'4, 237). Luafatasaga has played considerably this year in a backup role, but this will be the first significant test for him. Losing Tauteoli is a big hit for this defense, as he was the leading tackler, and the position group had already suffered a little bit of a drop off this year.
Utah will help out its linebackers with its secondary, though, with sophomore strong safety Chase Hansen (6'3, 216) often dropping into the box to help in run support. Hansen is actually the second-leading tackler on the team this year, and actually has 4.5 tackles for loss, which speaks to how aggressively the Utes will use him. It's very unfortunate for Utah that Williams went down, though, as he was certainly the yin to Hansen's yang in terms of being a much better player in coverage. Williams had three interceptions this year already, and was the third-leading tackler on the team. In his place, junior Jordan Fogal (5'10, 186) is slated to start, but it's anyone's guess what Utah will get out of him, as he simply hasn't played that much this year, appearing in just three games. Cornerback play has been solid, despite again suffering some injuries. Senior starter Dominique Hatfield (5'10, 175) missed three games already this season with a preseason knee injury. He's been slowly rounding into form over the last few weeks. Opposite Hatfield, senior Reginald Porter (5'11, 185) will get the start, and he has a couple of picks this year. In Hatfield's absence, senior Brian Allen (6'3, 205) played a lot more and did pretty well, with a couple of interceptions in his own right as well as three pass breakups. The starting nickel is senior Justin Thomas (5'8, 180), who's had a solid enough season.
As a general note, while Utah's defense is very banged up, watching them this year, it's obvious that they're just about the most physical team in the Pac-12. Playing them is a chore, and with their depth at defensive tackle, it can be a great challenge for opposing offensive lines to line up against them.
UCLA's offense is veering into tragicomic territory of late. The Bruins can't run the ball -- at all -- and it has made for some really rough games. Against Washington State last week, the Bruins came in with a game plan to run the ball and were shut out in the first half largely because of that. Only in the second half, when UCLA elected to pass much more extensively and more or less abandon the run were the Bruins able to climb back into the game. A year after basically every running back on the team was able to run for 5 or more yards per carry in Noel Mazzone's spread offense, the Bruins have been held to under two yards per carry -- as a team -- in successive games in an offense ostensibly designed for them to run the ball more consistently. That's not good.
UCLA was without Josh Rosen last week, and we didn't see him out at practice on Tuesday, which leads us to think he might be out for this game as well, especially if we also go by how he looked throwing the ball on the field before the Washington State game. Obviously, anything can happen in the next few days, but we'll operate under the assumption that it'll most likely be Mike Fafaul for a second straight game. Fafaul, for his part, looked OK against Washington State, and was a big part of UCLA's second half comeback.
The biggest issues for UCLA this year have been, in order, the offensive line's inability to run block and the receiving corps' wild inconsistency catching footballs. The offensive line, from a personnel standpoint, doesn't appear to be fixable, since there just isn't much depth and the guys who are forced to start just simply aren't up to the task of blocking effectively for this scheme. The receiving corps might be fixable, inasmuch as guys who haven't been able to catch the ball consistently could be benched in favor of guys who have been more reliable and consistent. We'd love to see more Theo Howard, but as the season wears on, we're beginning to think that will be an unrequited wish.
Overall, the scheme might need to be tweaked heavily if UCLA is going to run the ball. With the offensive line issues up front, the Bruins really can't count on winning one-on-one battles up front, which more or less cripples a pro-style rushing attack with big sets from the get-go. While wholesale changes midseason are always tricky, we'd like to see UCLA operate more on a pass-first mentality, and, when running, we'd like to see the Bruins spread out the defense more with four-wide sets and a faster tempo to give UCLA more favorable match ups in the box (which is, actually, what we suggested after the Texas A&M game).
Even with how banged up Utah is, it's hard to pick UCLA's offense against any defense remaining on the schedule, except maybe Cal, because Cal is LOLbad defensively. The Bruins have just been so ineffectual running the ball that, even though Utah's run defense hasn't been the absolute force it's been in years past, we can imagine the Utes shutting it down fairly easily.
UCLA has to pass to set up any kind of running game, but, in reality, the Bruins have to pass to set up more passing. Even with Fafaul as the starter, UCLA needs to commit to the idea that, unless they're willing to change things back to more of a spread running concept (read: basically run Mazzone's offense from last year), they're going to be a passing team this year. Fafaul showed he's capable of being relatively effective, albeit against a much worse defense. Dropping him back 40 times against Utah might not be an ideal solution, especially given the issues, at times, for UCLA's offensive line, but there aren't too much good options for UCLA's offense. Rolling out Fafaul is important, especially since he showed he could throw well on the move last week against WSU, and mixing in quick throws out of the shotgun and some RPOs could help to keep the Utah pass rush away long enough for him to move the offense enough.
On the flip side, and this has to come into the discussion, this is one of the few games where we could talk ourselves into UCLA being wildly conservative on offense and just trying to play the field position game and not turn over the ball. Utah's offense, as we'll get to, is not good, and in many ways is barely average. The UCLA defense should be able to shut it down to a great extent, and this game could easily come down to a defensive score or a timely turnover. Playing to avoid mistakes offensively in such a game is probably more defensible than, say, against Washington State.
Still, Utah's defense is far and away better than UCLA's offense, and it's hard to project the Bruins scoring more than two or three times (at least on offense).