Facts and Factors
• UCLA hosts the Utah Utes Saturday at the Rose Bowl, with kickoff scheduled for 1:00 p.m. PST.
• Fox will televise the game, with Gus Johnson, Joel Klatt and Shannon Spake calling the action.
• The Bruins are 3-4, and 1-3 in the conference, which is the worst start for UCLA since 2011, Rick Neuheisel's last season as head coach, when the Bruins finished 6-8 overall.
• Utah is 6-1 overall, 3-1 in the Pac-12, and are ranked #18/#19 in the two national polls. It's the third-straight 3-1 Pac-12 start for the Utes, with its best Pac-12 run to date being the 5-1 last season.
• Utah is tied for the Pac-12 South Division lead with Colorado, both with 3-1 league records.
• Although UCLA leads the series with Utah, 11-3, the Utes are 2-3 against the Bruins since joining the Pac-12 in 2011 and are 3-3 in their last six meetings.
• Last year, UCLA traveled to Salt Lake City to face the Utes. Coming off a disappointing loss to Washington State, in which the Cougars pulled out the game in the Rose Bowl in the last minute, the Bruins bounced back to beat Utah, 17-9.
• Two years ago in the Rose Bowl, UCLA was 4-0, ranked #8 in the nation, and had national title aspirations when it lost to Utah in the Rosel Bowl, 30-28. Looking back, the game decided the Pac-12 title.
• The win for Utah in 2014 in the Rose Bowl was Utah’s first ever win against UCLA in Los Angeles. UCLA won the first eight games of the series before Utah beat the 11th-ranked Bruins in 2007, 44-6, in a series that goes back to 1933.
• Despite last season's win, UCLA hasn’t generally played Utah well since they joined the conference. There was the devastating loss in 2014, then, in 2013, UCLA won in Salt Lake City, but it took a big effort from Brett Hundley to defeat the Utes, who ended up going 5-7 (2-7 in the Pac-12) that year. In 2012, Utah also wasn’t very good, going 5-7 (3-6) on the season, and UCLA just got by them, 21-14. In 2011, in Utah’s first year in the Pac-12, it dominated UCLA In Salt Lake, 31-6.
• Utah is led by Kyle Whittingham (56), who is in his 12th year as Utah’s head coach. He has the second-most wins in school history (101-47). He has spent 23 seasons on the Utah staff, working his way up from defensive line coach, to defensive coordinator, to head coach in 2005 when he replaced the departed Urban Meyer. Whittingham is considered an excellent defensive coach, with the rep of getting the most out of his talent on the defensive side of the ball. After Utah joined the Pac-12, the Utes and Whittingham got knocked for not being able to win at the Pac-12 level, going 17-19 and 9-18 in his first three Pac-12 conference seasons. But in the last three, he pretty much has dispelled that notion, posting records of 25-8 and 14-8, and finishing the last two seasons ranked 20th and 16th and sharing the Pac-12 South title last season. In the off-season, Utah signed Whittingham to a contract extension through the 2020 season, paying him $3.3 million per year.
• UCLA has posted a 13-8 overall record against ranked opponents under Coach Jim Mora and has won seven of the last nine.
• Last week, Washington State gained 356 yards of total offense, marking the sixth straight game that a UCLA opponent has failed to crack the 400-yard mark. The last time UCLA held six straight opponents to less than 400-yards of total offense was in 2010, and the last time it held more than six straight opponents to that number was in 2002 (8).
• UCLA’s Jim Mora is 3-1 against the Utes.
• SInce the beginning of October, 2015, UCLA is 7-9.
• Some great walk-on UCLA quarterback trivia: Mike Fafaul starting last week against Washington State marks the first time a walk-on or former walk-on quarterback started for UCLA since 1999 and Drew Bennett. Bennett went on to play in the NFL, as a wide receiver, for 7 seven seasons (2001-2008). McLeod Bethel-Thompson was a walk-on when he got playing time in 2007, but never started, and then transferred to Sacramento State. Bethel-Thompson made a few different NFL teams for parts of nine seasons, but never actually threw a pass in the NFL.
• Under Mora, an unranked UCLA team has beaten a top-20 ranked team three times. It happened twice last year, when it beat #20-ranked California and #17-ranked Utah. Mora's Bruins also beat #17-ranked Nebraska in the second game of his tenure, in 2012.
• Because of the uncertainty of UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen's availability, there is no betting line on the game from Las Vegas oddsmakers.
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 many 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).
UCLA's Defense vs. Utah's Offense
Utah's offense, as it has been through much of Kyle Whittingham's tenure in Salt Lake City, is...workmanlike. It's not pretty, by any stretch of the imagination, and for large chunks of games it's pretty darn ineffective. Given the strength of the defenses over the course of Whittingham's tenure, though, the offense has generally been good enough to come out ahead during the sorts of ugly defensive struggles Utah likes to play. That's certainly been the case again this year, but barely so.
As with the defense, the Utah offense is pretty beat up at this point in the season, though it wasn't some world-beating juggernaut prior to the raft of injuries either. But, to go through the litany again, probably the biggest injury on offense was the loss of center/tackle J.J. Dielman for the season a few weeks ago. Dielman was an all-conference tackle last year but moved inside to center when Utah's likely first string center retired prior to the start of play. The running back corps is so beat up that a college player had to come out of retirement last week to shore it up. The Utes' best receiver and top tight end have also been dinged up recently.
From a statistical perspective, this Utah offense is wholly mediocre. The Utes average just 5.4 yards per play, 4.3 yards per carry, and 7.4 yards per pass attempt. Each of those numbers is comfortably average. The Utes don't give up a whole lot of sacks (33rd in the country in QB sacked percentage), so there is that, but they also turn the ball over at a pretty startling clip, with nearly 2 giveaways per game, which is masked only by the amount that they take away from opposing teams.
One of the biggest changes from years past is a new face at quarterback. After seemingly a decade of facing the incomparable Travis Wilson, the Bruins will get to face another semi-familiar quarterback in junior quarterback Troy Williams (6'2, 200). Williams started out at Washington but moved on to a JC before arriving at Utah. He's been passable thus far this year, with some good moments and some bad. He has given Utah about as much with his legs as Wilson used to, which is good, and he's probably been a slightly more consistent passer. As it stands, though, he's completed just 56% of his passes and has thrown seven touchdowns against four interceptions. He's been perfectly average, which, again, is good enough for Utah since the passing game is about fourth on the totem of importance for Utah after the defense, the running game, and special teams.
The offensive line, prior to the injury to Dielman, was probably one of the better groups in the conference, and still is comfortably upper half. They don't give up a lot of pressure, and despite the revolving door at running back, they've been able to create some lanes and help along some sort of rushing attack in every game. Junior JC transfer Garett Bolles (6'5, 300) really anchors the line on the left side, especially with Dielman now out. There's pretty good experience at both guard spots and at right tackle, with senior left guard Isaac Asiata (6'3, 323), junior right guard Salesi Uhatafe (6'5, 315) and senior right tackle Sam Tevi (6'6, 305) filling out those three positions. Again, about the one weak spot is center, in the absence of Dielman. Junior Lo Falemaka (6'5, 283) will get the start there and he just isn't quite at Dielman's level. Effectively, Utah is down to its third-string center, which is never ideal.
The running back situation has been a mess, with basically everyone injured or retired at some point in the season. Senior running back Joe Williams (5'11, 205) came out of his brief retirement last week and went on to rush for over 170 yards against Oregon State. Williams is very talented, but other than him, there isn't much of a sure thing in the depth chart. Zack Moss (5'10, 213), their freshman back, started out the season looking very good but has missed the last two weeks with an injury and it's uncertain whether he'll be 100% on Saturday. So, it's very likely that Utah's running game is going to depend on a guy who was retired this time two weeks ago and its quarterback.
The receiving game hasn't been without injury, with senior receiver Tim Patrick (6'5, 210) looking somewhat hobbled in the game last week. He was limited for three games with an undisclosed injury, but the hope for the Utes is that he'll be ready to go at more or less full speed this Saturday. Even having missed one full game, he's still Utah's leading receiver by a wide margin, and his size and lanky speed makes him a very tough matchup for opposing secondaries when he's healthy. Another guy to keep an eye on is senior Cory Butler-Boyd (5'10, 180), who is an explosive playmaker who Utah will use in a variety of ways, including on sweeps and end-arounds out of the backfield. Sophomore Raelon Singleton (6'3, 215) is another talented player who should be Utah's top receiving target next year. At tight end, junior Harrison Handley (6'5, 250) didn't play last week, with senior Evan Moeai (6'2, 235) playing extensively in his absence, and it's uncertain whether Handley will play this week. Moeai is probably the better receiver of the two, though, with Handley the better blocker.
So, it's a banged up Utah offense, and it'll have to go against arguably the second-best defense in the conference in UCLA. The Bruins, after some slight hiccups in the first two games, have become the best defense of the Mora era over the last five games, and they've done it with some slight tweaks to the scheme (a good deal more Cover 1) in addition to better health on the defensive line than there was in the first two games. Takkarist McKinley is quietly having a ridiculously impressive year (somewhat modest sack numbers given his pass rush ability, but he's getting consistent pressure on quarterbacks and has become one of the better edge run defenders in the Pac-12) and it's particularly astonishing because he hasn't been fully healthy in a single game this year. We have to imagine he's climbing up draft boards with his play this year. Eddie Vanderdoes was a little quieter last week against Washington State than he had been previously, but he has also been very impressive this year, looking like one of the better interior run defenders in the country.
With those two, and the defensive line as a whole, playing well, the linebackers have been freed up quite a bit more and they're playing looser, as a group, than they have in two years. Kenny Young really looks a lot better than he did in the first three games of the season, and has basically relegated Isaako Savaiinaea to mop-up time thanks to his consistency over the last four weeks. Jayon Brown has also come on strong over the last five games, culminating with a very good performance last week against Washington State.
The secondary has been very good all year, but was hit by a key injury two weeks ago that has hurt performance a bit. With Nathan Meadors out, Randall Goforth has been pressed into duty quite a bit more at cornerback, and he hasn't looked great. The domino effect has put Octavius Spencer and Marcus Rios (who also went down for a bit against Wazzu), on the field more, and has just generally diluted the talent in the secondary. UCLA is playing a little bit more aggressively on defense over the last five games, which puts more pressure on the secondary, so getting back to full strength soon would be key.
The Bruins are fully capable of shutting down this Utah attack, and while we would say that in years past, it was more wishful thinking then. The Bruins have been very good defensively this year, and for once appear to be matching their performance to their considerable talent level. They've been good against the run and stunningly excellent against the pass (5.2 yards per pass attempt, good for second in the country behind Michigan).
There isn't really a whole lot to fear about this Utah offense. It would take a massive drop off in performance for this defense to give up even as many points as they did last week against Washington State. The Utes are an average running team and an average passing team and they turn the ball over a decent amount. It's overall a mediocre offense with no great strength to point to. UCLA has shown the willingness and capability to use a spy on a running quarterback this year, and we think the Bruins have a really good chance of keeping Williams contained to the pocket, which is a victory.
Obviously, the big thing to take away with Utah is the run game. If UCLA can keep Joe Williams from getting established on the ground early, it could force Utah into pass mode, and we like the match ups for UCLA's secondary against Troy Williams and the somewhat banged up Utah receiving corps. The one thing to watch out for with UCLA is getting worn down late -- UCLA's offense might not be able to generate much against Utah's stout defense, so UCLA's defense could end up on the field a good amount.
Utah consistently has some of the best special teams play in the country, and this year is no different. Despite nursing a bad foot, senior field goal kicker Andy Phillips (5'10, 210) has still been pretty darn consistent, making 10 of 12 kicks with a long of 47. Sophomore Mitch Wishnowsky (6'2, 220) has emerged as one of the best punters in the country this year, with a booming leg. He's averaging nearly 50 yards per punt this year, with 15 of his 31 being downed inside the 20. Even with that big leg, he's only had touchbacks on two of his punts. Freshman Hayes Hicken (5'11, 185) is the kickoff specialist and he has 13 touchbacks in 27 kicks, which is respectable.
In the return game, the Utes are very good on punt returns, with Boobie Hobbs averaging nearly 7 yards per punt return on 20 returns. Kickoff returns haven't been quite as good, but Butler-Boyd is potentially very dangerous, with an average return of 23 yards, but he looks like he could break a big one at any time. Utah doesn't give up much, typically, in the return game, with an average return of 3.83 yards per punt and 20 yards per kickoff (although they have given up one touchdown on a kickoff).
UCLA, for its part, is starting to come apart at the seams on special teams. The punting game, which started out the season looking a cut above the last couple of years, has devolved considerably over the last few games, culminating with Austin Kent kicking a -1 yard punt and getting chewed out on the sidelines after he jogged off the field without downing the ball. He had a miserable game in the windy conditions up in Pullman, but he was starting to struggle before that game. At kicker, J.J. Molson is 9 of 14 on field goals his year with a long of 39, and his kickoffs haven't been quite as deep as you'd like, with only 11 of his 33 going for touchbacks.
The return game has been very spotty of late, mostly with UCLA showing an inability to handle the ball. In the last three weeks, each of Ishmael Adams, Adarius Pickett, and Randall Goforth have mishandled kicks, and luckily, none of them have been turned over. Still, there's a real sense of adventure when the other team lines up to punt, which is never a good thing. When they've held onto the ball, UCLA's returners have been fine, if unspectacular. UCLA's coverage units have been better than last year, but not quite up to the standards of the first three years under Jim Mora.
We would be absolutely floored if this game went over 50 points, and we'd honestly be a little surprised if it went over 40. Both of these teams have good defenses, and both of them have below average offenses. If anything, you might even say UCLA's offense (if Rosen plays) is slightly better, if only because UCLA can pass the ball better than Utah does anything offensively. If Fafaul plays, it's probably a wash, but UCLA's defense is probably a bit better than Utah's.
We think both teams are going to try to run the ball and turn this into a ball-control, field position type game, and we wouldn't be shocked if UCLA tries to maybe spread out the Utah defense a little bit to build some sort of credible rushing attack. The thing is, Utah is one of the few teams with a solid enough defensive front to keep even a spread team from running the ball effectively, as we learned over the years with Noel Mazzone against this defense, so we're not even sure that would work. Ultimately, we think the Bruins are once again going to have to turn to the pass to generate consistent offense against the Utes.
That's a bit more difficult against Utah than it was against Washington State, though. Even if Rosen plays, Utah gets after the quarterback pretty well, and you have to imagine either Rosen or Fafaul is going to be feeling a good deal of pressure most of the game. On the flip side, UCLA should do a better job containing Utah's running game than pretty much anyone has this year, and we like the matchup for UCLA's secondary.
We could talk ourselves in circles about this for a long time, but the conclusion is this: there shouldn't be a lot of points scored in this one, and the game could absolutely hinge on a single big special teams play, or one big turnover, or just one late stop -- or, conversely, one late busted coverage. Ultimately, in this defensive battle, we like UCLA's defense just a bit more than Utah's, and with both offenses relatively comparable in quality, we'll go with the home team in what should be a real tossup game.