Game Matchups: Utah at UCLA

Breaking down who has the edge in each of the matchups before Saturday's game at the Rose Bowl

Utah Quarterback and Wide Receivers vs UCLA Defensive Backs
So which Travis Wilson are we going to see this week? The one that looked poised and dangerous against Fresno State with both his legs and arm? The one that did an admirable job managing the game against Michigan? Or the one we saw last week against Washington State? Wilson can play, that’s not the issue. The issue is consistency, and that tends to pop up more often once the Utes hit conference play and start playing teams with a pulse. Travis has made strides from last year to this one in how he’s playing the game. Outside of the Wazzu game, he was showing more command and control of the offense as well as playing smarter. No interceptions on the season is a huge plus for the Utes, but he’ll be tested by the best secondary he’s faced so far this season in UCLA. If he struggles, the leash might end up being short and run–first QB Kendal Thompson could be inserted. Expect to see Thompson at some point Saturday as Utah tries to mix things up.

Dres Anderson has to bounce back this week after posting a bagel on Saturday including a recurrence of the multiple drops that plagued him in 2013. His speed and playmaking ability is arguably Utah’s biggest threat against the UCLA defense. Dres will need to shake off the previous game and go over 100 yards, including a few big plays, to help keep the Utah offense moving. Kenneth Scott is a tough matchup for any DB due to his physical play. He’s developed into a very reliable 8 to 12 yard option and should be able to grab another 5+ balls on Saturday. Kaelin Clay was a bigger part of the Utah offense on Saturday than at any point this season with 10+ balls being throw his way. The Utes used him in a variety of ways, including down the field, but the inside wide-receiver screen can be a real weapon against the Bruins and probably the best use of his talent on Saturday.

UCLA is giving up over 300 yards per game through the air, which at first glance doesn’t look very good. Dig a bit deeper and they’re allowing 6.6 yards per pass attempt, a more than respectable number. They do a have propensity for giving big cushions at the line of scrimmage, something Utah will likely try to exploit with their quick hitters, but the corners all close quickly. Whether or not they can wrap up and tackle immediately will he difference in Utah’ ability to move the ball.

Cornerback Fabian Moreau has been a disappointment this season for UCLA. Being hyped by many as an All Pac-12 caliber corner, Moreau has often been picked on by opposing quarterbacks and has been a liability for the Bruins so for in 2014.

The guy to watch out for and the one that has been getting all the pub recently is Ishmael Adams. He’s not the biggest guy in the world, but the junior is highly explosive, physical, and savvy. He’s returned two interceptions for touchdowns on the year and is capable of playing both the corner and safety positions. He started out the season outside, but moved to safety last week in a switch with Anthony Jefferson, likely to use Jefferson on the big body of ASU’s Jaelen Strong. It worked as Adams had a big day and Jefferson was able to hold Strong moderately in check. If the move sticks, you can expect to see Jefferson locked up with Kenneth Scott.

Ute fans will also get a long look at Priest Willis, who has really emerged over the past few games and has all the physical tools to be an elite defensive back. True freshman Jaleel Wadood, who was close to committing to Utah last year, has been stellar in extensive action in the last two games and looks like a future star.
Edge: UCLA

Utah Running Backs and Tight Ends vs UCLA Linebackers
It’s finally the Devontae Booker show as the junior college transfer eclipsed Bubba Poole as the starter at running back. It only took the coaches four games to figure out what everyone else knew back in March; Booker is by far the best back on the team. His 170+ yards against Wazzu were very impressive, highlighted by a 76 yard TD scamper. What won him the job though is his toughness, speed, and grind it out attitude as a ball carrier. Washington State defenders couldn’t take him down with one guy, and to this point in the season, no one has really been able to stop him when he’s getting touches.

Bubbe Poole will spell Booker and it will be interesting to see just how often and how many touches he gets. Poole is averaging 36 yards per game on the ground, but is probably most dangerous catching the ball out of the backfield. He only has 6 catches for 89 yards, but has great hands, great speed, and is a threat every time he touches it in the passing game. Troy McCormick has 21 carries on the year, but has been absent the last two weeks against better opposition.

Everyone talks about Myles Jack. Myles Jack this and Myles Jack that. He’s an unbelievable athlete with instincts that are unrivaled for a player at his age. Jack can do it all from rushing the passer, stopping the run, and dropping into coverage like a cornerback and hang with the opposing team’s fastest receiver. What people fail to realize is the Jack is not only not the best defender on his own team, but he’s not even the best linebacker. That title goes to Eric Kendricks, who is probably the best backer in the conference. Kendricks really does it all with a team leading 47 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, 1 interception return (for a touchdown), 1 forced fumbled (which turned into a touchdown), and fumble recovery. He’s around every single ball.

Deon Hollins lines up as an outside linebacker for UCLA, and is generally used in a pass rushing role. You’ll see him on the left side at the line of scrimmage creating havoc in the backfield with a team leading 2 sacks. Hollins does tend to take himself out of some plays and can be beat on the screen pass due to overplaying things, as well as pick up penalties for off-sides, which has happened more times this season than is reasonable. True freshman Kenny Young rounds out the group and is a physical marvel. Kids that young should look like that. He’s still adjusting to the collegiate level though and has 12 tackles on the season. Not the same pass rushing linebacking group as we've seen in the past now that Anthony Barr is playing for the Minnesota Vikings.
Edge: UCLA

Utah Offensive Line vs UCLA Defensive Line
Will Utah play to the strength of their offensive line this week and run the ball consistently? This line is effective in the run game, as they get a good push and are often able to get into the second level. Guards Junior Salt and Isaac Asiata are both good run blockers. Neither can pass block worth a darn though. Thankfully Jeremiah Poutasi has rebounded and had a nice bounce-back year at left tackle, even though he wasn’t great against Wazzu, while J.J. Dielman has been good enough to warrant a starting spot and Siaosi Aiono continues to play well at the center spot. Unfortunately, they can’t do everything in the passing game to make up for the deficiencies out of the guards when Utah wants to throw the ball. If they do want to get something out of the passing game, they’ll need help in the screen game to the running backs. Right now this line is not playing up to a Pac-12 level standard. With a defense loaded with athletes that they’re about to face, that’s scary thought for Utah.

The UCLA defensive line has as much pure talent as any line in the country, but hasn’t consistently played up to that level yet. Senior defensive end Owa Odighizuwa is a physical freak and a Sunday player, but it yet to notch a sack this season and that's been an issue with this line as the pressure on the quarterbacks hasn't been there. Eddie Vanderdoes has one sack on the year and three tackles for loss opposite Owa. The star of the line though is nose guard Kenny Clark. The sophomore is an absolute animal and maybe the best interior lineman in the conference. He constantly commands double teams, but throws blockers to the side like he’s in a wrestling match. Clark has a ridiculous 23 tackles for a nose guard, is a future high NFL draft pick, and will test the Utah offensive line as much as any player they faced this season. Ellis McCarthy hasn’t lived up to the billing as a high-profile recruit yet, but is the first guy off the bench and can play both inside and out.
Edge: UCLA

UCLA Quarterbacks and Wide Receivers vs Utah Defensive Backs
Get ready for the Brett Hundley show. If Hundley plays like he did last week against Arizona State, or anything close to it, Utah is going to have a tough time slowing this offense down. He’s one of the best quarterbacks in the country and has consistently showed it this season, despite the fact he hasn’t always been helped by his offensive line or receivers.

Hundley is completing over 72% of his passes (2nd in the country), and has really honed his passing and pocket skills this season. His development as a complete quarterback has him finally keeping his eyes down the field, even when he’s rushed, and the Bruins have started rolling him out to the right more to buy more time. He’s not running the ball as often as in the past, likely in part because of his strides as a passer, but is still a dangerous threat in the run game, especially on the designed runs and runs up the middle to avoid the rush (as Ute fans know very well). Hundley can make pretty much every throw in the book and is a legitimate Heisman candidate. Not much more to say about a guy that some think will be the top pick in the NFL Draft next season.

Junior Jordan Payton has emerged as Hundley’s favorite target and top threat. He’s pushed himself into that elite Pac 12 receiver category with 24 catches for 107 yards per game and 3 touchdowns. He’s got solid speed and is very difficult to take down. Eric Rowe likely gets the matchup and will have trouble handling his physicality. Devin Fuller is a burner and a threat over the middle, which is where Hundley generally likes to find him on short crossing routes. He has 18 catches on the year, but only for 109 yards total. He’s still waiting to break one. Thomas Duarte is UCLA’s version of Jake Murphy in his sure-handedness (Virginia game aside). He catches pretty much everything thrown his way and is dangerous on deeper balls down the middle. Devin Lucien, Eldridge Massington, and Nate Iese are all vital parts of the passing game.

Are the Utah defensive backs still backpedaling? They saw 61 Connor Halliday passes on Saturday and were gassed by the fourth quarter due to a lack of overall depth and the inability to sub in reserves with the ability to play at a Pac 12 level yet. Eric Rowe had a pick six on Saturday where he positioned himself perfectly on a quick slant. He’s been up and down this year though with teams often going his way when he’s one on one with a receiver. Dominique Hatfield has made the move to defensive back in a full-time role after starting the season playing both ways. The first couple of weeks showed tremendous play as well as upside, but he took a step back last week against Washington State. That will happen though when you have to cover for 5 seconds. Justin Thomas rounds out the trio as the nickel back. He’ll often get to line up against Fuller in the slot and has the physical game to slow him down. Thomas has also shown great instincts on short balls and has been tremendous in the run game when called upon.

It’s homecoming for Brian Blechen and his final game in Southern California as a Ute. Will he have a lot on his plate this week as he did last week in putting the rest of the secondary in the right places throughout the game? The possible return of Tevin Carter would help not only in letting Blechen play his own game and focus on stopping the UCLA athletes, but Carter’s speed and ability to cover a lot of ground make up for Blechen’s lack of Pac 12 speed. Carter must play Saturday for Utah to be able to slow down this UCLA passing attack. It’s clear that replacement and true freshman Marcus Williams is nowhere near ready to go. If he’s getting torched by Fresno State for two touchdowns, and two more by Washington State, what is Brett Hundley going to do to him?
Edge: UCLA


UCLA Running Backs and Tight Ends vs Utah Linebackers
UCLA’s running game is really starting to kick it into high gear, improving their overall rushing total from each game to the next, as well as their average yards per carry.

Paul Perkins has grabbed the role of starting running back for UCLA after splitting carries with Jordon James early in the season. He’s responded with 80+ yard performances in all four games this season including 126 and 137 the last two weeks. Perkins is also a threat out of the backfield with 10 catches for 79 yards. He can run between the tackles well and has plenty of speed. Easily UCLA’s most complete back.

Jordon James hasn’t been the same player since leaving the Utah game last year with an injury. He’s averaging just 23 yards per game and has had a multitude of carries for negative yards, often running tentatively. Linebacker Myles Jack comes over to carry the ball occasionally and is load to bring down. He’s the short yardage third down or goal-line back that pushes the pile. True freshman Nate Starks is starting to get more carries and can be a bruiser between the tackles.

UCLA doesn’t really use a tight end, but the closest thing is Nate Iese. Watch for Iese inside the 10 yard line as he’s a big target that seems to find seems in the end zone.

If Gionni Paul isn’t playing at close to 100%, it will be a huge blow to Utah’s defense as Paul looks to be the engine that really makes them all go. He had to come off multiple times against Wazzu last week and doesn’t look fully healed from his injury that kept him out six months despite two impressive performances. The guy is just playing through the pain right now. Jared Norris was Utah’ top defender last week notching two more sacks and racking up a ton of tackles. He and Paul will be responsible for locking down the middle of the field in the passing game and penetrating a still suspect UCLA offensive line to make plays behind the line of scrimmage, along with keeping Hundley’s legs contained. They’ll need help from the defensive line, but the duo of Norris and Paul that is giving up only 107 yards per game on the ground, can keep UCLA under 150 yards rushing if they play assignment sound football. If Utah wants to rattle Hundley, sending Norris on a blitz up the middle is a good way of doing that. With Jason Whittingham still out, Utah has ZERO depth at linebacker, and Nate Orchard may be forced into that role again on Saturday.
Edge: Even


UCLA Offensive Line vs Utah Defensive Line
What a difference a center makes. Starting center Jake Brendel missed week 1 against Virginia and the results were dreadful. 5 sacks on Hundley and consistent pressures and collapsing of the pocket. Since his return against Memphis, the UCLA offensive line has been better each week culminating in a very good performance against Arizona State in which Hundley was only sacked once, had plenty of time to throw, and the running lanes were opening up for the backs. It all starts with Brendel who is one of the top centers in the conference. He’s a second QB on the field and you’ll often see him pointing out assignments. Kenny Lacy came off the bench against ASU for an injured Alex Redmond and did a stellar job at left guard in the most significant action of his career. Redmond may be back this week, but it looks unlikely. It would seem like a blow to the Bruins’ OL as the sophomore has been a starter since game one of his true freshman season in 2013, but his 2014 performance has been far from consistent. Right tackle Caleb Benenoch has a penchant for penalties, but is an athletic tackle that is really light on his feet. Sophomore Scott Quessenberry has improved, like most of the line, in each game this year and plays with some nasty. Left tackle Malcom Bunche is a transfer from Miami and can play multiple spots. He's been UCLA's best and most consistent offensive lineman this season.

Utah’s defensive line should revert back to their normal four man front this week after going with three down linemen (generally all tradition ends) against Washington State and having little success. Nate Orchard should be able to get some pressure on Hundley in his matchup with Bunche, but he’ll need help as he struggled with double teams last week. Hunter Dimick has emerged as a future All Pac-12 level defensive end, but may have trouble with the quickness of Benenoch. The Utes have five different guys listed as co-starters at two spots on the interior of the line. Clint Shepard seems to generally get the nod each week, but he’s going to have trouble matching up with up with a UCLA line that is bigger than anything they’ve seen this year. Filipo Mokofisi has made strides as the season has gone along and Seni Fauonuku is always stout, but not an every down sort of tackle. Sese Ianu and Lowell Lotulelei will rotate in as well. If Utah is vulnerable in the front six/seven, the interior of the line is the spot. Utah does lead the conference in sacks per game as 4.5 per contest as well as tackles for loss at 9.5. They'll need to post numbers similar to that on Saturday to slow down the UCLA offense.
Edge: Even


Utah Special Teams vs UCLA Special Teams
In the special teams game, this might be Utah’s closest foe all season. Kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn has had an inconsistent career at UCLA, but is 4 for 5 on the season. He’s got a pretty big leg and can make them from 50 if needed. Not elite, but still solid.

Punter Matt Mengel is finding his footing after starting the season off slowly. He doesn’t have a very big leg averaging around 40 yards per punt, but the Bruins cover it well as they are yet to allow a return yard in the punt return game on three opponent returns over 23 kicks.

Ishmael Adams is a tremendous return man, and if it weren't for a guy that plays in Salt Lake City, might be considered the best in the conference, if not the country. He retuned a kickoff return for a touchdown against Arizona State last week, had a punt return from 85 yards called back against Virginia due to an obscure penalty that didn’t affect the play, and a big return against Texas to setup UCLA’s game-winning touchdown. Suffice to say, the kid is pretty good.

If there’s one school in the country that can counter Adams in the return game, it’s Utah with Kaelin Clay. Four kick returns for touchdowns through four game this season is just silly. No one does that and you almost expect him to take it to the house each time he has the ball. Will UCLA kick the ball his way? Jim Mora said they will and Clay will look to make them pay.

The Utes also have arguably the top punter in the country in Tom Hackett with his roll-out directional kicks that hit inside the 10 yard line and stop like he’s got a wedge attached to his right leg. Hackett is long, Hackett is precise, and his team gets down the field and covers it well as opponents have returned only 6 kicks for 22 yards this season. Throw in Andy Phillips, a Lou Groza Award candidate and again, one of the best kickers in the country, and Utah special teams are unmatched anywhere in the land.
Edge: Utah


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