Bruins Lose Utes Battle But Can Still Win PAC-12 War

For all the talk about the offensive modernization of college football, Saturday’s 14-7 defensive struggle at Rice-Eccles Stadium channeled the “three yards and a cloud of dust” aura of Bear Bryant, Bo Schembechler, Woody Hayes. The game’s first play had Dante Moore stare down his initial read, resulting in a Karene Reid 21-yard interception return for a touchdown.

A heavyweight showdown between each team’s front seven ensued with the next score of the game being Utah’s final possession of the half, a nine-play 51-yard drive culminating in Nate Johnson’s patient outside bootleg before finding tight end Landen King for a 7-yard touchdown.

The Bruins only score of the game came with three minutes and 39 seconds left to play when Moore found Josiah Norwood on a gorgeous 17-yard slot wiggle go-route culminating a miraculous drive that had the Bruins at facing third and 27 from their own 1-yard line at one point.

UCLA’s ferocious front seven courageously forced the Utes to go three and out on successive inside run plays to set the stage for one last possibility of magic. However, three sacks in four plays ended any miraculous hopes the Bruins had to extend the game. Here are three instant reactions.

UCLA vs Utah: Takeaways From UCLA’s Loss At Utah

The Offensive Line Was Offensive

The one concerning position group about this team all spring and fall was the offensive line. Their inability to have any semblance of line-of-scrimmage containment was the single greatest determinant of this loss. The Utes sacked Moore seven times, had 11 tackles for loss, and held the Bruins to a paltry nine yards on 32 rushes. When Moore wasn’t getting slammed to the turf, he was incessantly engulfed by swarms of pressure while both Carson Steele and TJ Harden seemingly had three defenders in their faces the moment they touched the ball.

Granted the Utes are two-time defending conference champions and arguably the PAC-12’s most physical team. However, this performance was still inexcusable by the Bruins upfront given the litany of injuries the Utes were facing on that side of the ball entering this showdown. The bye week is coming at an ideal time for Chip Kelly as he needs to find the right schematic configuration to protect an undermanned and overmatched offensive line. Pressure will be the blueprint all opponents will rely on when the going gets tough against the Bruins. How Kelly thinks about incorporating Hudson Habermehl, Carson Ryan, and possibly Colson Yankoff in more maximum protection formations will be key.

Moore’s Mechanics & Mentality

The lack of stability upfront naturally led to Dante Moore getting his first taste of adversity. While Moore statistically, in going 15-35 with 234 yards passing with one touchdown and that one aforementioned interception, was borderline respectable and his effort unquestionably valiant, concerning tendencies emerged. The first was abandoning his mechanics in the face of pressure. Countless plays saw Moore throw off the wrong foot, jump while releasing, unnecessarily dropping his arm angle, or bailing out from his follow through, as the Utes dialed up the pass rush.

The second was an unwillingness, or unawareness, of his checkdowns when the primary and secondary options were unavailable. This resulted in extending plays dangerously, forcing the ball down the field to sideline receivers in traffic, or suddenly deciding on shovel passes and quick flips, leading to unsuspecting receivers dropping balls in dangerous traffic. With the bye next week, these two topics will be top of mind for Moore to study prior to his next exam.

Special Front Seven

Lost amidst Utah’s masterpiece was an inspiring performance by the Bruins front, which was instrumental in holding the Utes to a mere 219 yards of total offense. This front seven had 11 tackles for loss, four sacks, and forced three fumbles.

Kain Medrano was UCLA’s unquestioned player of the game with a career-defining 10 total tackles, two sacks, and 2.5 tackles for loss. Laiatu Latu chipped in with two tackles for loss, while Darius Muasau and Grayson Murphy each had one sack and one tackle for loss, respectively. If the Utes are arguably the most physical front seven in the conference, the Bruins are rapidly turning that title into a ferocious debate.

There were countless opportunities for this group to crack and concede on its aggressiveness, especially given the offense’s anemic ineptitude. But D’Anton Lynn’s attitude, tactics, and fingerprints are all over this unit, one that is the most complete UCLA has had in a decade. Twice the Utes were inside the Bruins 30-yard line, only to come away with no points. Another Utah drive stalled in Bruins territory on fourth down, courtesy of wrapping Johnson up near the left sideline as he tried to break contain. Eight of the Utes final 10 possessions resulted in a punt. If UCLA’s front plays with this dynamism, the Bruins can win every game from here on out.

Missed Opportunities

Seven points would suggest having minimal daylight to pay dirt, but the Bruins will be ruminating on chances that weren’t meant to be. Midway through the first quarter, after Moore carved up the Utes zone with a precise deep cross to Ryan for 20 yards on third and three, Norwood dropped a sure touchdown on the very next play. The Bruins would turn the ball over on downs three plays later.

Then, with under six minutes to go in the third quarter, Moore found J. Michael Sturdivant on a beautiful 41-yard deep fade on third and eight. The very next play he overthrew wide-open Logan Loya on a delayed go-route that was the game’s second missed certain touchdown. Moore would fumble five plays later inside the Utes’ red zone, killing the scoring chance.

Finally, with about 13 minutes left in the game and the Bruins facing fourth and four sitting on the Utes’ 36-yard line, Moore scrambled around only to throw a fastball high and wide to Kam Brown, who was also shadowed by the right sideline. The bigger problem: Ryan was streaking wide open on an inside deep slant, a third possible walk-in score. Of those three possible touchdowns, if one goes the Bruins way, the outcome could have been different. If two happen, the outcome would have been different.

Pleasant Surprises

Outside of the defensive front, the two bright spots offensively were Ryan and Loya. The former had three catches for 69 yards, including a contested 45-yard catch between two defenders on fourth and seven that set up the Bruins only score. As Kelly determines how to offset the offensive line challenges, his playbook may emphasize intermediate routes in the middle of the field with big targets like Ryan and Ford.

Loya, on the other hand, served as Moore’s most consistent receiver Saturday, primarily exploiting the Utes zone for underneath crossing routes to the tune of five receptions for 63 yards, highlighted by a remarkable 20-yard reception on a six-yard Moore throw where he displayed burst, lateral cutting and smooth instincts in route to morphing third and 27 to the manageable aforementioned fourth and seven. Moore is developing an undeniable rapport with Loya as the Wes Welker to JMS’ Randy Moss.

It wasn’t the result Bruin Nation nor ESPN College GameDay was envisioning, but with the competitive greatness exhibited by the front seven, the growth mindset of prodigy Moore, and anticipated countermeasures by Kelly, the battle may be lost but the conference title war is still very winnable.