What I Learned From Attending The UCLA Vs. Utah Game

UCLA had their first big test of the season this past Saturday against Utah, and thankfully, I was lucky enough to be there in person! (Or maybe not so lucky, if you consider how the game went, but more on that in a bit.) My parents moved to Utah a few years ago, and I’ve been in town visiting them for the past few weeks. It overlapped perfectly with the UCLA vs. Utah game, and my Dad and I thought it’d be a great idea to go. Neither of us had been to Rice-Eccles before, and this would probably be the last time these two teams would be playing each other for a while since the current Pac-12 is dissolving at the end of the year. This was also my first time seeing UCLA live. So even though the past had not been kind to UCLA in this rivalry, I was pretty excited heading into this game.

The gameday experience did not disappoint. The weather was about as perfect for football as it gets: a beautiful, crisp, fall day with a clear sky. The temperature was in the 60s. As we walked toward the stadium, we passed by plenty of students in red pregaming at the college houses leading up to the stadium. The stadium was pretty nice by college football standards–we even had seats, as opposed to bleachers–and it was mostly full and striped-out. Unfortunately, there weren’t any Bruins fans in the section I was sitting in, but I still felt comfortable cheering for UCLA.

Utah has been a very good team over the past decade despite being overlooked nationally. Most people probably think of USC, Oregon, and Washington when they think of the Pac-12. But more often than not, Utah has been the bedrock of this now-dying conference. The same could be said for their gameday atmosphere.

Both my Dad and I had a great time at Rice-Eccles, which is notable considering I was rooting for UCLA and he’s not a college football fan. Being located right in Salt Lake is quite a plus as well, and I would definitely recommend it to those who haven’t been. It easily outclassed the gameday experience at Penn State, where I went for the first time a few weeks ago, but that’s a different story.

As for the game itself, the result was obviously not what I or any other Bruins fan would have hoped for, as the Bruins fell to the Utes 14-7. It was closer than it’s been in the past, and the Bruins did have a chance to win at the end, but it was still a poor result in many ways. Here’s what I learned from watching the game live, as UCLA still has not won at Rice-Eccles since 2015.

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UCLA vs. Utah Started In Disaster

Utah won the coin toss and deferred, and after returning the kick, Dante Moore threw a pick-six on the first play from scrimmage. It was a quick pass and the linebacker read Moore’s eyes like a book. All of a sudden, UCLA is down 7-0 and the game has barely even started. Certainly not how you’d like to get things going.

A Promising Drive Ends on a Failed Fourth Down

A few drives later, UCLA seemed to settle into the game. In what was really one of their only effective drives of the day, UCLA went 46 yards on 10 plays before facing a 4th and 7 at the Utah 29. Chip Kelly decided to bypass the field goal and lined up to go for it. He then called a timeout before actually going for it this time, and Moore’s pass was thrown behind his receiver.

NCAA Football: UCLA at Utah
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The UCLA Offense Was Backed Up All Day

UCLA really couldn’t get anything going on offense in this one, and the field position was definitely a factor in that. Throughout the game, Utah would move the ball a little bit and stall around midfield, before punting and pinning UCLA back deep, usually inside the 15 and sometimes inside the 10. Logan Loya was forced to call fair catches deep on the Bruins’ side of the field all day. That honestly made me wonder if punt returns are dead in this sport. Both in college and the NFL, you regularly see guys being forced into making fair catches inside their own 20. I’m not sure if there’s a schematic reason for this or what, but regardless, it definitely left UCLA’s offense in a hole for most of the day.

Dante Moore and the Passing Game Looked Terrible

This is the main takeaway from this one. The UCLA offense was pitiful, and UCLA simply could not complete passes on the day. Dante Moore was just 15/35 and got sacked a whopping seven times. And despite the game never being out of reach, UCLA had absolutely no answers for the Ute defense.

This is the point where we really need to talk about Dante Moore, the incredibly talented first year quarterback who had pretty much a perfect recruiting ranking coming out of high school.

Moore looked great in his first few games, and his presence led to a lot of excitement surrounding this Bruins program. With all due respect to former Bruin Dorian Thompson-Robinson, this guy was clearly at a different level, and it was easy to dream about the kind of heights he could bring UCLA to.

Obviously, your first true hostile and out of state road start is going to be a different beast than playing Coastal Carolina and FCS NC Central at home (and in state San Diego State on the road). Rice-Eccles is a tough place to play, and Moore is still relatively young and inexperienced.

And of course, the offensive ineptitude wasn’t all Moore’s fault. The Bruins couldn’t run the ball, the offensive line couldn’t block, and the play-calling could have been better.

Having said all that, Dante Moore looked terrible on Saturday. If I hadn’t known who he was coming into this game, I would have said he didn’t belong on the field. In the first half, Moore missed several wide open sideline shots that could have been touchdowns. He missed on that early fourth down. He fumbled twice, once in scoring range. And overall, he was very clearly not comfortable. Moore was very hesitant to throw the ball, something we had not seen from him up to this point. Yes, the protection was a problem, but Moore was so indecisive that he honestly played himself into a lot of pressure. He regularly tried to step up and through the Utes rush to take it himself, but it was clear he was never going to outrun them. On the few plays that he did have running space, he was too indecisive about whether he wanted to run or throw it, which led to him having success with neither.

Moore regularly held onto the ball too long, seemed afraid to turn it loose, and did not play within the timing of the offense. It’s clear the Utes pass rush had him rattled. But again, his inability to play with any sense of timing or ability to sense and navigate pressure made the pass rush more of a factor than it should have been.

Maybe the receivers weren’t open. That’s always a tough thing to ascertain as a fan if you don’t have the full camera view and don’t know the passing concepts. But make no mistake about it, Moore played really badly today. It got to the point where, before the Bruins converted on that miracle fourth down late in the game, I was thinking that I would have benched Moore after that series if nothing came of it.

Now, to be clear, it’s one game. I would expect Moore to bounce back. Hell, it took Dorian Thompson-Robinson years of experience before he became a good quarterback. But if we see more performances like this, expect that QB competition to open back up.

NCAA Football: UCLA at Utah
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The Defense Played Well

This was the one silver lining of this game for UCLA. The Bruins defense regularly made stops and got the ball back for their offense, even as the offense did nothing to help them. As bad as UCLA was on offense, Utah wasn’t much better. They only scored two touchdowns on the day. One was on a pick six, and the other was on a drive at the end of the half. Neither offense looked good in this one.

The one caveat, of course, is that Utah was forced to turn to backup quarterback Nate Johnson as Cam Rising still wasn’t ready to play in this one as he’s been suffering from an injury. If Cam Rising had started, it’s safe to say that the margin of victory for Utah would have been much bigger. For most of the second half, Kyle Whittingham seemed content to pretty much keep the ball on the ground and play conservatively, as he clearly wasn’t afraid of the UCLA offense. Turns out he was right not to be.

A Glimmer of Hope for UCLA

Just when I was about ready to give up on the Bruins for the day, they made magic happen. On a 3rd and 27 on their own 2 yard line, Moore dumped it off to Logan Loya who brought it all the way back to the 22 to bring up a 4th and 7. On the next play, Moore rolled left and heaved a prayer downfield to Carsen Ryan, who somehow made the 45 yard catch (it was probably offensive pass interference on the play, but it wasn’t called). A few plays later, UCLA scored, and all of a sudden it was a one score game. Kelly used his timeouts to force a Utah punt, and with just a few minutes left, UCLA had a chance to make this a tie ball game.

But that hope quickly went out the window as Dante Moore would be sacked on three of the next four plays to end it. Absolutely no chance.

NCAA Football: UCLA at Utah
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Chip Kelly Needs To Play With More Tempo

The two drives that stood out to me from this game where the UCLA offense actually was able to do something were the early drive that led to a fourth down turnover which I mentioned above, and the late touchdown drive. Both of those drives had the Bruins offense utilizing tempo. But for the rest of the day, the offense ran at a snail’s pace. Moore would look to the sideline for what seemed like forever before eventually lining up.

I don’t know if this was a schematic choice or if there was trouble communicating on the road, but UCLA needs to get this cleaned up. The way you neutralize a dangerous pass rush is by playing with tempo, and it’s baffling that the Bruins, running this spread offense, refused to do so. It gave Utah the upper hand schematically and they took full advantage.

Coming into the season, UCLA was viewed as an afterthought in this deep Pac-12. That was something that was easy to get frustrated with, considering how close they’ve been and how talented they are.

Utah was always going to be a tough matchup, but that doesn’t make the loss sting any less. Things aren’t going to get any easier for the Bruins, as the Pac-12 is as competitive, talented, and deep as it’s ever been. Chip Kelly better turn around and figure this one out quick. Having a no-show on the road like this isn’t going to cut it moving forward.