Utah Preview

UCLA travels Saturday to Salt Lake City for the first time in 33 years to take on Utah, a team that is 0-2 and struggling, having lost five starters to injury, including its quarterback, running back and best wide receiver...

NOTEWORTHY FACTORS

-- UCLA travels to Salt Lake City, Utah, to take on the Utah Utes Saturday at 2:00 p.m.  The Versus network will televise the game (station 603 on DirectTV), with Joe Beninnati, Glenn Parker and Tim Neverett calling the action.

-- UCLA moved up to #11 in both the AP and the USA Today/ESPN Coaches Poll this week.  It's the highest ranking for the Bruins in two years.

-- UCLA is 2-0, having beaten Stanford 45-17 in the season opener in Palo Alto, and then at the Rose Bowl last week beating BYU, 27-17.

-- Utah is 0-2, losing to Oregon State, 24-7 on the road and then to Air Force at home, 20-12.

-- The Bruins lead the overall series, which dates back to 1933, by an 8-0 margin. UCLA beat Utah in the season opener last season, 31-10.  The Bruins haven't played in Salt Lake City since 1974, when it beat the Utes, 27-14.  In that game, UCLA was coached by Dick Vermeil. 

-- Last year, in UCLA's win, it was Ben Olson's first career start, and he threw for 318 yards and 3 touchdowns.

-- UCLA is the highest-ranked team Utah has faced since 2001, when it played #7-ranked Oregon and #8-ranked BYU.

-- Utah is coached by Kyle Whittingham, who is 15-12 in his third year in Salt Lake City.  He's served 11 seasons on the Utes' staff, getting promoted from defensive coordinator in 2005 when Urban Meyer was hired by Florida.

-- Utah has faced all ten Pac-10 teams in its history, and UCLA holds the best record against the Utes. Utah has beaten everyone in the Pac-10 but UCLA and Washington.

-- Utah plays in Rice-Eccles Stadium, which holds 45,017 and uses FieldTurf.  They are 36-16 at Rice Eccles, which opened in 1998.

-- Utah has lost four starters to injuries in its first two games, and five starters total since fall camp began, three for the season.

-- In a season where 19 of UCLA's 22 starters are either seniors or juniors, only one true freshman has played so far this season, long snapper Christian Yount.  Only four redshirt freshmen have participated in at least one play, and they are place kicker Kai Forbath, back-up quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson, receiver Dominique Johnson and lineman Darius Savage.

-- Utah has sold over 25,000 season tickets, a new school record.

-- The weather forecast is for 86 degrees and sunny on Saturday in Salt Lake City.

UCLA'S OFFENSE V. UTAH'S DEFENSE

Utah runs a conventional 4-3-4, and head coach Whittingham, the former defensive coordinator, wants Utah to be known for its defense, and they've generally been pretty good since Whittingham took over in 2005, and previously when he was defensive coordinator.  Last season they were 43rd in the country, and particularly stingy against the run, allowing just 106 yards per game.

But things have changed, unfortunately, for the Utes so far this season.

First, they lost three all-conference performers from last year's defense to graduation, particularly All-American cornerback Eric Weddle.

Then last week, Utah lost starting senior defensive tackle Gabe Long with a knee injury that is expected to keep him out for 2-3 weeks. 

This has caused some shuffling on the defensive line, and overall the defense has been very poor against the run. The Utes, in two games, are giving up an average of 287 yards on the ground, which gets them ranked 113th out of 119 1-A college programs. Last week, with Long going down, the Utes gave up 334 rushing yards to Air Force. With Long in the line-up against Oregon State in its season opener, they gave up 241.

Long being out creates a domino effect on the Utah defensive line.  Last week it rotated four different players at defensive tackle, and determined that none of them were very successful.  This week, starting defensive end Greg Newman (JR, 6-4, 260) will slide over to Long's tackle spot.  Koa Misi (SO, 6-3, 263) will then step into Newman's starting defensive end position.

Also, the guy Utah was banking on to be the anchor of its defensive line, defensive end Martail Burnett (SR, 6-3, 262), so far, hasn't. Utah intends to start Paul Kruger (R-FR, 6-5, 255) instead this week. Kruger has out-played Burnett so far this season, and Utah is looking for anything to help stabilize a problematic defensive line. Nose tackle Kenape Eliapo (SO, 6-0, 303) has been the only consistent element on the line so far this season.

Generally, Utah's defensive line isn't big. Newman was a linebacker coming out of high school, and he'll now be at tackle, weighing 260 pounds, with the line averaging just 270 pounds.  Burnett was the returning sack leader on the team and was expected to be a big part of Utah's pass rush, but so far it hasn't materialized. They've totaled just two sacks in two games and haven't gotten much pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

Utah's Joe Jiannoni.


It was thought that Utah's defensive strength would be its linebacking crew, but it's hard to say now that the Utes have been run over so much in the first two games.  Joe Jiannoni (SR, 6-0, 235) is considered the leader at middle linebacker, and their rover linebacker Kyle Brady (SR, 6-1, 234) is the team's co-leader in tackles with 13 per game. Another senior, Malakai Mokofisi (SR, 6-2, 242) rounds out the unit and has been active. You could say they've been involved in a lot of tackles as a group because both Air Force and Oregon State ran so much right at them.

Utah's defensive secondary was thought to be the defense's biggest question mark coming into this season, mostly because they had to replace Weddle and another starter.  Stepping into Weddle's spot has been Sean Smith (SO, 6-3, 217) who is the size of a safety, and has Utah's two interceptions on the season.  On the other side is returning starter, Brice McCain (JR, 5-9, 189), who isn't big but considered steady.  Utah will shake up its safeties a bit this week with veteran Steve Tate (SR, 5-11, 195) moving from free safety to strong safety, to create a place for junior college transfer Robert Johnson (SO, 6-3, 185). Tate is a good one, and is the co-leader on the team in tackles. Utah likes Johnson, but he could be very green in his first college start.  If he falters, they can go back to former starter Joe Dale (SO, 5-11, 197).  R.J. Stanford (SO, 5-11, 180) plays a lot as Utah's nickel back and has had two pass break-ups. If you might remember, UCLA looked at Stanford seriously out of high school.

Utah has posted good numbers against the pass, allowing just 92 yards per game through the air. But that's mostly because Air Force, a well-known running team, and Oregon State mostly ran the ball. Air Force had a whopping 63 rushes and Oregon State 44. Why not, when your average gain is 5.5 yards per carry against the Utes?

To Utah's credit, it did look good in pass defense against Oregon State. On the other hand, Oregon State looked pretty terrible throwing the ball.
Kahlil Bell.


UCLA's offense comes into the game after a pretty dismal performance against BYU last week.  It gained just a total of 236 yards, and a mere 126 through the air.  UCLA quarterback Ben Olson struggled, and he's looking to get back on track this week. If getting enough time is key for Olson, he should get plenty of it with his experienced offensive line going against an inexperienced, depleted and struggling Utah defensive line.  Utah can't over-commit its linebacker to rushing the passer, either, since it's been so susceptible to the run, so Olson should have plenty of time to see the field and check down to the open receivers, which he didn't do very well last week. Logan Paulsen, UCLA's talented tight end, has just one catch in two games, and no catches last week against BYU, when he was consistently open and visibly upset that Olson couldn't find him.

Hopefully Paulsen will hit someone besides his own teammate this week. Against BYU, on the interception, Paulsen clocked UCLA receiver Brandon Breazell. Breazell underwent some dental work this week and will play, which is good, since Breazell provides UCLA the only real game-breaker type of threat among the receivers in its rotation.

But make no mistake, with Olson struggling and UCLA knowing it has a strong running game and that Utah is struggling against the run, expect the Bruins to go to the ground.  The mystery isn't whether UCLA is going to run, but who they're going to primarily run the ball with - Chris Markey or Kahlil Bell. Bell has been the most pleasant surprise for the Bruins so far this season, looking like a different tailback. Markey, also, has looked like a different tailback than the one that gained over 1,000 yards last year. 

Advantage: UCLA.  UCLA's strength is running the ball and Utah's biggest weakness on its team is defending the run. Not hard to do the math.  Utah will probably stack the box, trying to utilize its experienced linebackers to limit UCLA's rushing yardage, but it will probably be futile. 

What would really be good for UCLA is that they didn't just resign themselves to running the ball against Utah. They could easily win by doing it. But when you have a struggling quarterback like Olson who needs a good game to gain his confidence back, using a game like this, when there shouldn't be a lot of pressure on him to have to put up big yardage through the air, it's a great opportunity.  UCLA will definitely run first and throw second, but the Bruin brain trust would be smart to give Olson plenty of opportunities to throw against Utah, a team that doesn't get a big pass rush and should be keying on UCLA's running game.

Hopefully, UCLA will be in some better third-down situations this week, being able to run the ball against Utah and setting it up for more manageable third downs.  Third-down conversions are killing UCLA's offense, right now being just 8 for 28 (29%), and mostly because those third downs have been predominantly third-and-longs.

UCLA, you can bet, will probably also attempt a few wrinkles to take advantage of Utah keying on its running game.

UTAH'S OFFENSE V. UCLA'S DEFENSE

This is where the game gets very lopsided.  UCLA's strong defense against an injury-ridden Utah offense.

The Utes have lost four starters to its offensive unit, four guys who were integral in their offense. We'll start with quarterback Brian Johnson, who is out with a shoulder injury suffered in the season opener.  Then there is starting tailback Matt Asiata, who is out for the season after breaking his leg in that same game.  Utah also has lost its best receiver, Brent Casteel, to a season-ending knee injury, and its best offensive lineman, left tackle Jason Boone.

Sheesh. That's brutal. That would be the equivalent to UCLA losing Ben Olson, Kahlil Bell, Brandon Breazell and Shannon Tevaga.  UCLA's offense wouldn't be the same.

And Utah's offense isn't.  UCLA fans lamented when the Bruins gained just 236 yards against BYU last week; Well, Utah is averaging just 254 in its first two games. Imagine if UCLA had put up two offensive games in a row like BYU.

Last year, with these same guys, Utah was the 41st best offense in the nation.

So, the Utes have a lot to make up for, and it starts with quarterback Tommy Grady (SR, 6-7, 235). Grady, who is from Huntington Beach Edison High and was a UCLA prospect out of high school before going to Oklahoma (and then transferring, obviously, to Utah), is really struggling. His struggles make Ben Olson look like he's Roger Staubach. He's completed just 46 percent of his passes, for one touchdown and two interceptions. He looks under assault in the pocket, and doesn't appear to see the field, or have a chance to see the field. He's been sacked 7 times in two games, five times by Oregon State, which is about as good a pass-rushing defense as UCLA.

The scary thing for Utah is that, if Grady for went down, they'd be in for some real hurt. Chad Manis (SO, 6-5, 215) is a JC transfer who has only been in the program since spring practice and Corbin Louks (FR, 6-0, 171) is a very small true freshman.

UCLA should be gunning to go after Grady in a big way.

At running back, Utah is in slightly better shape trying to replace Asiata.  No one has really stepped up to take over the starting position, but the Utes at least have a committee to try to do it.  Ray Stowers (JR, 6-0, 223), who is finally heathly after two years of shoulder injuries, looked the best in camp and is the team's leading ground gainer, but it's been tough sledding - 47 yards on 17 carries for a 2.8 average.  Utah wanted to redshirt Darrell Mack (JR, 6-0, 219) but he played when Asiata went down.  He's been a bit more effective than Stowers in less carries. 

Utah, though, in trying to cling to any hope, is trying to believe in Darryl Poston (SR, 5-11, 200). Poston, who transferred from USC, was Utah's leading rusher a year ago, gaining 553 yards in the 2006 season.  He didn't get a carry against Oregon State, but then was the go-to guy in the second half against Air Force, and actually gained some decent yardage. Poston had been thought of mostly as a third-down back, but expect him to get more carries this week after looking the best among the three candidates last week.

If it seems like Poston has been around forever, he basically has. He's in his seventh year of eligibility, due to injuries.  His injury troubles continued in the spring when he suffered a broken foot.
Rodney Van on Derrek Richards.


Utah's offensive line was supposed to be a good one, but hasn't shown it so far this season. Losing its skill players and also the offensive line's anchor in Boone might have something to do with it. Without Boone, that responsibility falls to right guard Robert Conley (JR, 6-1, 316), a three-year starter that many consider one of the best interior lineman in the Mountain West Conference.  There are two other returning starters in center Kyle Gunther (SR, 6-4, 304) and Zane Beadles (SO, 6-4, 312).  Beadles moved to tackle to replace Boone and protect Grady's blind side, and new starter Corey Seiuli (JR, 6-3, 320) moves in at left guard.  Dustin Hensel (JR, 6-7, 320) has been solid at right tackle.

So, Utah has lost its quarterback, running back, and best offensive lineman. It just wouldn't be complete unless they lost their best receiver, too.  After the Utes lost Johnson and Asiata against Oregon State, it was particularly a blow to lose receiver Brent Casteel last week against Air Force. Trying to pick up the slack is Derrek Richards (SR, 5-11, 175) who, with Casteel, was supposed to be Utah's one-two receiver punch.  With Casteel down, Grady was really looking for Richards against Air Force, and Richards had a career-high 8 catches for 109 yards. Grady connected with him on what is easily Utah's best offensive play in two games, a 34-yard touchdown. 

Opposite Richards is new starter Marquis Wilson (JR, 5-11, 175). Also in the rotation is Bradon Godfrey (JR, 6-3, 197) and true freshman Jereme Brooks (FR, 5-9, 165).  Godfrey stepped up against Air Force with seven receptions.

Tight end Matt Sims (SR, 6-1, 251) is mostly a blocking tight end. It doesn't help that a back-up tight end, Colt Sampson, suffered an MCL in the season opener and is out.

UCLA's defense experienced a loss itself due to injury when veteran defensive tackle Brigham Harwell went down with an MCL injury last week against BYU.   Replacing him is redshirt sophomore Jess Ward, who is a good-sized drop-off from Harwell. UCLA will try Chase Moline or Jerzy Sierwierski, too. Nikola Dragovic, the starting defensive end, is suffering from concussive symptoms and didn't practice yesterday. He'll have to practice today to play on Saturday.  While UCLA has back-ups, with Tom Blake admirably filling in for Dragovic, losing two starters on the line has to impact its effectiveness. 

Cornerback Rodney Van is expected to return to action after sitting out the BYU game, but his back-up in that game, Alterraun Verner, got most of the time with the 1s in practice this week.
Dennis Keyes.


UCLA's two safeties, Chris Horton and Dennis Keyes, received a lot of pre-season hype, but they've been susceptible against the pass in UCLA's first two games.  UCLA's first two opponents, though, abandoned their running game for the passing game, with BYU and Stanford both throwing the ball over 50 times. 

Advantage: UCLA.  Really, the best thing Utah's offense has going for it is that it runs a spread, which UCLA struggled with some last season under Defensive Coordinator DeWayne Walker. UCLA hasn't seen one yet this year.  Utah's quarterback, Tommy Grady, however, isn't the ideal guy to run a spread, since he's not greatly mobile.  You can bet that UCLA will look prepared against the spread, after Walker got rapped last year for not looking strong against it.

Even if Utah had all of its injured guys on the field, it's still not a great match-up against UCLA. Last year, with basically this same offense (except without Johnson but another senior QB) going up against basically this same defense, Utah couldn't move the ball really well.  So, throw Utah's injured guys into the equation and it gets uglier.

Utah runs a fairly balance offense, at least in the last two games under Grady, but they very well could abandon the run like UCLA's first two opponents did. If there's anything about this offense that has really broken down since the injuries it's the running game. It's averaging a measley 1.4 yards per rush and just 45 yards per game, against a UCLA defense that's tied for ninth in the country in rushing defense, allowing just 91 yards per game.  Stanford and BYU went to the air, also, because they were trailing, which is the same position you can expect Utah to be in.

Without much to expect from Utah's running game, you can expect UCLA to try to put pressure on Grady even more than it usually does.  At least, early. Because when UCLA gets a lead, it then tends to play conservatively in terms of its blitzes. UCLA needs to continue to be aggressive defensively when it has a lead, because it doesn't get good pressure on quarterbacks when it has to rely on its front four to supply it.

On special teams, the Utes have a good punter/kicker in Louie Sakoda, who is off to a very good start, especially punting, averaging 44.8 yards a punt.  Seven of his punts, too, have been downed inside the 20, and four inside the five-yard line.  He is fairly accurate on his field goal kicking out to 45 yards. 

UCLA's punt returner, Terrence Austin, and kick-off returner, Matt Slater, seem close to breaking one.

Prediction

If you're Utah, you have to be asking yourself: Who else will we lose to injury? It would have to be considered a victory for the Utes if they came out of this game with the #11-ranked team in the country and merely didn't lose anyone to a season-ending injury.

As Utah is now, with their injuries, they are probably one of the worst ten teams in the nation. Their offense definitely is one of the worst. 

It really is a game UCLA needed to play after the BYU game. It's a perfect game for Ben Olson to use to get on track.  With Utah's rush defense being so poor, UCLA will run first, taking the pressure off Olson, and Utah doesn't mount a very good pass rush.  If Olson struggles in this one, everyone who isn't concerned about Olson should be.

It's also a game that comes at a very good time for UCLA, to get the injured Bruins healed. UCLA shouldn't have to have Patrick Cowan available for this game. If Dragovic is still not 100%, he shouldn't play much.  The same with linebacker Aaron Whittington or cornerback Rodney Van.

For Utah to be competitive in this game, it would have to go against everything it's shown in its first two games. Utes fans are pointing toward the fourth quarter against Air Force as a sign of better things to come. Trailing 17-6, the Utes' offense finally was effective, with Grady completing a touchdown pass to Richards to make it 17-12. They then drove the field before stalling on the Air Force one-yard line.  The offense gained 162 yards in that quarter, almost the same that it had gained in the first three quarters of the game combined.  Grady looked more comfortable in that quarter and Poston had some good gains.

But it's a stretch to think that Utah will do that against UCLA's defense.  Even if they've found a groove, they'll be playing against a much better defense than Air Force's.  UCLA's defense is closer to Oregon State's, and the Beavers held the Utes to 196 total yards and 18 yards on the ground.

This game should feel like Stanford all over again. In fact, Stanford's offense is better than Utah's.

UCLA 45
Utah 13


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