The long road to early season Pac 12 victories continued as the Utes dropped a tough one to 12th ranked UCLA by a score of 31-24 in a game marred by cold temperatures, inept referees, and tipped Travis Wilson passes landing in the arms of UCLA defenders.
Was Utah good tonight? They were pretty good, but not good enough, and not good enough against another top tier Pac 12 opponent.
We'll start with Wilson, who had his worst game of the year. It wasn't as bad as it seemed if you looked only at the stats. Wilson was fairly composed, made some tough throws, and helped give his team a chance to win. The six picks though, are hard to swallow. Not all of them were on Travis with deflected balls flying through the arms and repeatedly into the hands of the Bruins, but Travis made a few bad reads, through into coverage, and had a couple of throws that weren't on target. He'll learn more from this game than any other in his young career, and Utah football going forward will be better because of it.
The offensive line still has a ways to go. Jeremiah Poutasi continues to struggle, but going against Anthony Barr is no easy task. It's apparent that Poutasi will have issues with rush outside backers. He'll do much better against a traditional defensive end as opposed to a speedy outside linebacker going forward, but the overall play has to be a big concern. At the other said, Siaosi Aiono had problems with Cassius Marsh throughout the game.
The running back shuffle continued with Poole, York, and Radley all getting a decent number of carries. Despite moderate success running the ball, Poole was yanked early and didn't get a touch in the second half. Kyle Whittingham attributed it to wanting someone that gave them something different and in trying something new, but you have to wonder if there is more to the situation. York ran hard and ran well to get things going, but the Bruin defense shut him down late in the game. Did get some production out of Lucky Radley, who used his speed to make some plays, but Radley's inability to block makes him a liability against a team with pass rushers like UCLA has. Who's going to be the starter next week? It's anybody's guess.
The receivers were very much up and down with Jake Murphy, Sean Fitzgerald, and Dres Anderson all coming up with tough catches, but drops also existed, including a big one by the normally sure-handed Murphy, and a few that turned into interceptions. Utah missed Kenneth Scott more in this game than any other this season.
UCLA has been known this season for second half defensive adjustments, and what they did to Utah in the second continued that trend.
The second half drives went like this:
9 possessions. 3 punts, 1 field goal, and 5 interceptions. In the immortal words of Stu Lantz, 'That will not get it done.'
The defensive line was pretty good for Utah. Nate Orchard had his most complete performance of the season with 9 tackles, 1 being for loss, and was getting consistent pressure on Hundley. Tenny Palepoi was very active and helped clog the middle, but Utah didn't get much out of the Fauonuku/Tuipulotu combo. The pass rush was improved over what we've seen throughout the season.
The linebacking group of Jared Norris and Jason Whittingham was stellar, shutting down a Bruin running game with a combined 21 tackles, 4.5 for loss, and 2 sacks for Norris. The only gripe? Hundley's 36 yard QB draw up the middle which turned in the winning score. Whittingham acknowledge that they weren't in the right formation, and placed the blame on the coaching staff.
Came away impressed with Utah's secondary. Keith McGill had Shaq Evans locked down throughout the game, holding him to only 1 catch, while turning in the play of the game for the Utes with his pick six on Hundley in the 4th quarter. With just under 20 NFL scouts in attendance at the game, McGill made himself some money. Eric Rowe was stellar as way, playing his best overall game of the season.
For the most part, Sitake called a good game. Blitzed the Bruins at opportune times, and did a great job of knowing when they were going to pass and when they were going to throw. Credit him and his staff for drawing up a game plan that held UCLA to 18 points below their season average and forced 7 punts of a team that had only punted 3 times in 3 games this season.
So what happens next? A top five ranked Stanford team now comes to town, presenting an even more difficult matchup than the one Utah faced in UCLA. Stanford lines it up and powers the ball down your throat. Defensively, they are as stout as they come in the country. The Utes will need an epic performance to pull off the upset. Is it a must-win? No. Calling a game against a top 5 team with a decided talent advantage can't be a must one, but a good performance is necessary in building for the very winnable two games that follow after that at Arizona and at USC.
Utah football is still moving in the right direction. Good enough to play with pretty much anybody, but not good enough to beat the upper and upper-middle tier teams in the Pac 12 yet. It's discouraging and frustrating, but part of the transition to big boy football. It may not be much consolation to Utah fans, but with each game, win or lose, the Utes move closer to a Pac 12 championship. The process is in full effect. It's just going to take a big longer than most of us probably expected.
Utah Picked Off By UCLA
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