After nearly a month into the 2023 season, the UCLA Bruins are facing their first test. Ironic that the inaugural one is quite possibly the conference’s ultimate one, playing the two-time defending PAC-12 champions at home, where they’re in the midst of a 16-game winning streak. Here are five key plot lines heading into Saturday’s showdown.
UCLA vs Utah: Previewing Bruins Battle With Champion Utes
Signature Or Speed Bump?
As is most things Bruins-related, the conversation must begin with Dante Moore. The freshman phenom has been brilliant with 615 passing yards and seven touchdowns in about seven quarters of play. But so far, he’s played in games where the Bruins have outscored their opponents 121-30 and have only been tied for two minutes and 37 seconds out of a possible 180 minutes of total game time.
This is a step function increase in opposing talent, adverse weather conditions, crowd noise, game stakes, and team anxiety. We’re so often blinded by his mature aura that we forget Moore is still only 18 years of age. So, does his lack of experience show itself finally, or does the immense poise he’s blown away all coaches, fans, and opponents with continue to seem effortless? It will either be the first true learning moment of his infant Bruin career or his first signature victory.
Rising From Injury?
There are equally as many questions on the Utes side of the signal caller equation. Reports have surfaced that Cam Rising, the team’s unquestioned leader over Utah’s back-to-back Rose Bowl appearances, is on the cusp of playing Saturday. Rising’s resume of toughness, running ability, competitive fire, and clutch execution speaks for itself. But what about his rust and game shape? After all, we haven’t seen Rising since his ACL devastatingly gave out against Penn State on New Year’s Day.
If Rising is unable to play (as of Saturday morning it is being reported that he will not start), Utah will turn to a freshman of their own in Nate Johnson. The Clovis, California product saved the Utes at Baylor two weeks ago going 6-7 for 82 yards in the fourth quarter after coming into the game replacing ineffective Bryson Barnes. Johnson spearheaded the final 14 points of the game for the Utes and then followed that up with a solid 193 passing yards and one touchdown versus Weber State.
But this Bruins front seven, led by PAC-12 Defensive Player of the Year favorite Laiatu Latu, is lethal. How Johnson, and his additional 148 rushing yards and three touchdowns on the ground, holds up to the Bruin pressure, and its 10 sacks in three games, has probably made head coach Kyle Whittingham an insomniac all week.
Second To None
Given the Utes’ injuries to 16 key rotational pieces in 2023, certain dimensions of their team have varied from the traditional formula that’s made Utah arguably the most physical brand in the PAC-12 over the past five years. No such area of the team has looked more different than in the aerial attack. With Brant Kuithe yet to suit up this season, the Utes are missing their bread-and-butter tight end excellence that has been a staple of their identity for years.
Replacing Kuithe is a quartet of wide receivers that are top four on the team in receiving yards. Money Parks, who set Las Vegas on fire in the PAC-12 title game last year, has picked up right where he left off with 138 explosive receiving yards and two touchdowns. Dynamite freshman Mikey Matthews complements with 120 yards receiving along with a team-leading 10 receptions. Finally, former USC transfer Munir McClain and last year’s WR1 DeVaughn Vele round out the pack. That’s also not including former Oregon Duck and Florida State Seminole Mycah Pittman, who’s just scratching the surface of his potential impact in the offense.
The Bruins secondary has shown considerable improvement in 2023 as this position group has accounted for four of the team’s six interceptions. But they’ve also gotten beat in one-on-one situations consistently and handily against the likes of Coastal Carolina and San Diego State. How this group holds up without giving up a barrage of large-chunk plays will go a long way in determining Saturday’s winner.
Holding Up Without Holding
Saturday will also serve as the ultimate litmus test for the Bruins’ mysterious offensive line. While Moore has been spectacular through the air and the two-headed monster of Carson Steele and TJ Harden have been relentless on the ground, this group’s inability to definitively close out the first two games of the season with line-of-scrimmage dominance versus inferior competition is concerning. Beyond the Bruins two anchors in veteran center Duke Clemens and former All-Big-10 performer Spencer Holstege, this unit’s talent, depth, and physicality are all in question.
Those questions will resoundingly be answered one way or another against yet another nasty, imposing, and aggressive Utes defense. Cole Bishop has taken the secondary leader torch from Clark Phillips as the team’s most dynamic defender with 14 tackles, two sacks, and an interception on the year. Bishop is supported on the edges by a pair of rising stars, defensive ends Jonah Elliss and Logan Famo, each of whom also have two sacks a piece. Adding to the defense is athletic linebacker Levani Damuni flying all over the field, as evidenced by his team-leading 19 total tackles. Giving Moore enough time and the backs enough creases will be paramount to success.
Man Of Steele?
The aforementioned Steele will be a vital puzzle piece given his physical, fearless, and battering ram running style against the equally immovable Utes. Steele was the ninth leading rusher in college football last year with 1,556 rushing yards and a reputation for imposing punishment in the MAC. However, spring and fall ball revealed an inability for Steele to set the edge in the more athletic PAC-12. That seeming deficiency has been a non-factor against lesser competition the past few weeks but now gets a fresh look in the mirror.
If Steele struggles to set the edge and is confined to the interior of the Utes defensive line, which has historically been a strength, the Bruins will struggle to keep defenses off balance with their two-back rushing attack. They may be more reliant on Harden as a lead back, making him possibly more susceptible to wearing down in the second half. Or they may need to lean on Anthony Adkins for more short-yardage situations, at the expense of some explosiveness. How effective Steele can be will have a direct correlation with Chip Kelly’s ability to invoke offensive variety and nuance.
So many questions. All will be answered come 12:30 pm PST today.