This is where the season truly begins for UCLA.
It’s been quite the bumpy ride for this team, who followed up a dreadful 1-5 start (albeit with one very impressive win) by reeling off three victories in a row in Pac-12 conference play to ultimately put themselves in contention for the Pac-12 South crown. Now UCLA travels to Salt Lake City to play what is undoubtedly their biggest game of the season.
The one loss Utah Utes are currently ranked 8th in the country according to the College Football Playoff rankings, and their defense is a whopping 3rd best in the country when it comes to yards per game allowed–behind only those of Ohio State and Wisconsin. UCLA comes into this game a whopping 21 point underdog, so they’ll have to really be on their A-game if they hope to pull off the upset. Ultimately, this game comes down to whether UCLA can keep their hot offense rolling against one of the stingiest defenses in the country. The answer will have huge implications for the Pac-12 moving forward.
3 Key UCLA Matchups Against Utah
1) UCLA’s Offensive Line vs Utah’s Defensive Line
To me, this is the matchup that decides the game. We know how UCLA wins games; they get out to leads, and they jam it down your throat with Joshua Kelley. Both Kelley and the line have found their stride late in the season, as the line seems to have finally found some cohesion after struggling early on with the young players starting. That, in turn, has helped Kelley regain his momentum from last year. It’s also helped the play of DTR, who both has a run game to lean on and has a lot more time in the pocket than he did early in the season.
The problem is, Utah isn’t exactly easy to run against. They lead the nation in run defense, allowing just 56 yards per game on the ground. They also have held eight of their nine opponents under 100 yards rushing. To continue their offensive fireworks from previous weeks, UCLA’s line will need to be good enough to allow both Josh Kelley and DTR to function. If they get overwhelmed, I think Utah wins this game.
2) Zack Moss vs UCLA Front Seven
Both Zack Moss and Tyler Huntley are playing great this season, and I was close to putting UCLA’s secondary in this spot instead since they have struggled throughout the season. But as well as Huntley has played so far, I think stopping this Utah offense starts with stopping Zack Moss on the ground. Kyle Whittingham is a tough coach that wants to run the ball. Speaking to reporters, he had this to say about the upcoming UCLA game:
“We pride ourselves on being physical, and it starts with the run game and defending the run. That doesn’t change year in and year out. Typically, run yardage is more damaging than throw yardage to an opponent. If you can just cram the ball down their throat, that can be demoralizing.”
That just about speaks for itself. Here’s another one: Zack Moss has run for at least 80 yards in each of Utah’s eight wins this year. During their one loss? Just 20 yards on the ground. Contain Zack Moss, and you have a chance at keeping this offense in check.
3) UCLA Wide Receivers vs Utah Secondary
It’s hard to single out any one wide receiver here, in large part because UCLA’s production in that area has varied among players from week to week. But whoever it is that gets the targets in this one, they’re going to have to find a way to win against Utah’s corners.
Speaking to reporters about the upcoming matchup, UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson was asked if the Utah defense has any weaknesses or areas that UCLA will try to attack. His response was that Utah plays a lot of man coverage, so UCLA will have their one-on-one shots. With that, it’s imperative that UCLA’s WR’s find a way to win against that man coverage of Utah.
At the end of the day, there’s no doubt that UCLA faces an uphill battle in this one. Nonetheless, it’s an exciting matchup, and it should tell us a lot about both teams. Halfway through the season, no one would have thought that UCLA would have had a chance to play for the division, so the fact that they’re even in this position is pretty exciting in its own right. Now we’ll get to see just how good they’ve gotten, or if they’re still a ways away from competing with the big boys in the Pac-12.