“The stage is too big for the act.” That’s the answer renowned physicist Richard Feynman gave on his deathbed when visitors asked him if we’re alone in the universe. Perhaps Saturday isn’t quite as seismic, existential, or metaphysical a circumstance as Feynman’s lifelong research quest, but 11th-ranked Utah versus the 18th-ranked Bruins certainly feels epic. This is chapter two of the three-part top fifteen trilogy facing the UCLA Bruins. One that will define their season and chisel their future in the Kelly era as a bona fide “football-also” school.
Dorian Thompson-Robinson is coming off one of the three signature performances of his career, and arguably his most impactful given the competition. It went beyond the 24/33 for 315 yards passing and three touchdowns, to go along with his 10 carries for 53 yards and additional score, statistics. It superseded this being DTR’s and Chip Kelly’s first win over a top 15 opponent, with Kelly having gone winless at UCLA in his previous six tries. It transcended memories with DTR’s “Hurdle II,” his defensive line tackle to breakup his only possible interception of the night, or the side-step, uber-swaggy keeper touchdown that came straight out of a 007 chase scene.
That game was about Kelly putting the game in DTR’s hands when conventional wisdom suggested a run-first approach to ease his mercurial quarterback into a rhythm. In a flipping of the script, it was DTR’s play coupled with Kelly’s play-calling for option routes in getting Zach Charbonnet the ball on the outside, that opened UCLA’s bread-and-butter, straight-line rushing attack.
Kelly could have easily abandoned his plan after a scattered first drive, which stalled on three consecutive errant throws after 2nd Goal from the three. Kelly could have panicked after witnessing an erratic DTR be at his inconsistent best in the game’s first handful of plays with Charbonnet repeatedly unable to get loose inside the tackles. But coach and quarterback, undeniably connected and often synonymous over a five-year journey, hitched themselves to each other’s wagon for better or worse. Advantage better.
Contender Or Pretender?
If last week was all about DTR and the Bruins carrying a massive chip (pun intended) on their shoulder to eliminate the moniker of being the worst 4-0 team in America, this week is the Utes’ turn to go under the microscope.
Utah is the defending PAC-12 champion but without their best defensive player (linebacker Devin Lloyd to the NFL) or their greatest offensive player (tight end Brant Kuithe to season-ending injury) from last year’s Rose Bowl attending squad. The Utes were ranked 7th in the preseason and had a season-opening loss with an interception on the game’s final drive in the Swamp to the unranked Florida Gators, who have subsequently lost two SEC conference games. The Utes have since reeled off four straight wins while ranking 11th nationally in scoring offense and 12th in scoring defense. So, problem solved, week one was an anomaly.
Not exactly. Utah’s four victories came against non-Power Five Southern Utah, a San Diego State team that also lost to PAC-12 conference doormat Arizona, the Sun Devils of Arizona State who is on the cusp of the NCAA death penalty, and an Oregon State team whose quarterback room looked clearly compromised with injury and inexperience last week.
It was evident that Beavers’ starting quarterback Chance Nolan, before getting knocked out of last week’s game with a head injury, looked hurt with the lack of velocity in his arm strength that resulted in two interceptions of balls that resembled pigeons running into a Randy Johnson fastball. Despite Oregon State’s quarterback troubles and inability to have any semblance of credibility in the passing game, that was still a 21-16 game midway through the third quarter before more quarterback self-destruction occurred for Oregon State and put the game out of reach.
The 2022 Utes have not looked close to the 2021 version, and if preseason rankings didn’t exist in college football, nothing Utah has done this season warrants even a top-25 ranking. Couple this with Utah only being 17-16 away from Salt Lake City since 2018, compared to being 23-2 at home, and we have all the makings for delirious betters taking the Mighty Bruins at +3.5 points.
Bruin Weaknesses Are Not Ute Strengths
A conversation of concern regarding UCLA football can only begin in one fitting place…the defense. The Bruins pass defense did barely enough against the potent Huskies last week with two key interceptions to fend off a 40-32 upset victory. The problem for the Utes is they don’t have the weapons on the outside to exploit the Bruins secondary deficiencies.
The Utes two primary receiving options are TE Dalton Kincaid with 19 receptions, 257 yards, and five touchdowns, and WR Devaughn Vele with 21 receptions, 269 yards, and three touchdowns. Kincaid will be matched up with probably UCLA’s most athletic defender in Carl Jones Jr., while Vele is yet to crack 100 yards receiving in any game this season, subpar output for a WR1 on a truly contending team.
From a running game standpoint, Utes leading rusher Tavion Thomas comes in with 295 yards and four touchdowns on a 4.4 yards per carry average. However, further analysis reveals that Thomas has not cracked 100 yards rushing since opening week against Florida. Furthermore, reports are that Thomas is dealing with personal issues in the death of his aunt, who raised him.
Without Thomas operating at 100 percent, the Utes will rely more on the shifty Micah Bernard, who’s fourth on the team in both rushing and receiving. However, the Utes’ running game is predicated on north and south power, not zone-read lateral finesse. Without their bell cow in Thomas, Utah is just another middle-of-the-PAC-12 finesse running team, not the conference’s gold standard for power offense.
That leaves a focal point being quarterback Cam Rising, who’s been one of the conference’s best quarterbacks over the past two years with his dual-threat ability. However, Rising is more of a game manager than a highlight creator, where efficiency, decision-making, and ahead of the chain’s execution are his mantras, along with his unmatched leadership.
This is yet another opportunity for the Murphy twins and star Bruin rusher Laiatu Latu, with his team-leading six sacks, to disrupt Utah’s ability to stay on schedule. It was Latu who not only created UCLA’s first points of the Washington game, but it was his relentless pressure on Michael Penix Jr. that generated 2nd / 3rd and long situations that ultimately forced timely interceptions.
The final notable matchup of the game is star Utah cornerback, Clark Phillips III, and Bruins go-to-guy, Jake Bobo. Phillips is one of the nation’s best defensive backs with four interceptions on the season, including three last week versus Oregon State. But at a generous 5’10 and 183 pounds, Phillips is giving up 7-8 inches and over 30 pounds to the 6’5, 215, Bobo. Technique, leverage, ball skills, and instincts can only take you so far…there’s no tactical way to overcome such a size difference. I fully expect Bobo to cross the century mark in receiving two consecutive weeks.
With Martin Jarmond offering each UCLA student a free ticket to the game, the concern for DTR is if the act is too big for the stage. He will be at his athletically dazzling best for one of the marquee games he circled upon his return for a fifth year to capitalize on “unfinished business.” The conversation of past Bruins-Utes games is irrelevant as DTR has only played Utah once; three physical years ago on the road and significantly more light years of experience ago. DTR will go from top 12 in the Heisman conversation to top five with another clean sheet performance and set the stage for chapter three of the trilogy at Eugene in two weeks.
It took 40 starts, but DTR has turned the page.
It has taken 24 years, but the Bruins will make history.
Bruins 31, Utes 23