THIS WEEK’S OPPONENT:
Utah Utes (3-1, 0-1 Pac-12 Conference)
SITE: Rice-Eccles Stadium, Salt Lake City, UT
DATE & TIME: Thursday, October 3, 7:00 p.m.
TV: Fox Sports 1
LINE: UCLA by 4 1/2
LAST MEETING: UCLA won at the Rose Bowl, 21-14
ALL-TIME SERIES: UCLA leads, 9-2
MEMO TO THE 2013 UCLA BRUINS FOOTBALL PROGRAM:
Beware of the state of Utah.
Simply put, that state has not been kind to UCLA Football or Bruin Nation this century.
Consider the past:
In 2007, Karl Dorrell took an 11th-ranked Bruin team to Salt Lake City and got brutalized by the Utes, 44-6.
Four years later, Rick Neuheisel’s version of the Bruins went into a snowy Rice-Eccles Stadium and got knocked around by a score of 31-6.
And let’s not forget the Utes’ hated enemy, the BYU Cougars, who smashed UCLA 59-0 in Provo in 2008.
For those who are wondering, that adds up to the Bruins being outscored 134-12 in the three games that they’ve played in that state in the 21st century.
Granted, those were different UCLA teams and coaching staffs, and this is a new day as Jim Mora has toughened up this program, but it must be acknowledged that this is a monkey that the 12th-ranked Bruins (3-0) need to get off their back.
And in a convincing way, as Utah is a solid team that could give UCLA fits in their house, coming off a 20-13 Holy War win over BYU in their last game.
Coached by Kyle Wittingham, these Utes are led on offense by quarterback Travis Wilson, who made his collegiate debut against the Bruins last season at the Rose Bowl.
The sophomore signal caller has shown much improvement in the 12 months since, completing 64% of his passes so far with nine touchdowns – including an 80-yard strike to Sean Fitzgerald earlier in the season – and three interceptions. Against rival BYU on September 21 he threw for 273 yards and two scores.
Bubba Poole does the bulk of the rushing work for Utah, averaging 5.2 yards a carry, and his 15 catches are second to Dres Anderson, whose three receiving touchdowns lead the Utes.
On the defensive side, Utah has been impressive so far, recording a total of 15 sacks and 31 tackles for loss as a team. Defensive End/linebacker Trevor Reilly’s 5.5 TFLs lead the Utes, as does defensive tackle Tenny Palepoi’s 2.5 sacks.
Meanwhile, UCLA can boast of an offense that’s ranked third in the nation, averaging 52.7 points a contest.
Brett Hundley has been his standout self to this point, completing 66% of his passes for eight touchdowns while ranking as the Bruins’ second leading rusher behind Jordon James, who has scored four touchdowns at a very good 6.8 yards a pop and is fifth nationally with his 141.3 yards per game.
Not that James has carried the load in Westwood, as Mora and offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone has made sure that Paul Perkins, Steven Manfro, and Malcolm Jones have gotten reps, keeping everyone fresh; all three of those guys have an average of at least 5.2 yards a carry.
Add Damien Thigpen, who is returning from a torn knee suffered against USC last November, and that equals UCLA’s running game presenting a real challenge for Utah.
As for receiving, Hundley has been an equal opportunity passer as eight Bruins have caught a minimum of four passes so far in 2013, led by Shaq Evans‘ 13, whose three scores likewise lead UCLA.
Devin Fuller is right behind Evans with 12 receptions, and Jordan Payton has done well with six.
Defensively, the Bruins have been good, but could be better as it usually takes them a while to get going before they stuff opponents, giving up an average of just six points in the second half this season.
As far as strict statistics, UCLA’s 15 sacks and six tackles for loss falls short of Utah’s total, defensive lineman Keenan Graham’s three sacks and linebacking stud Anthony Barr’s five TFLs leading the team, but that will have no bearing when the Bruins and Utes face off; it’s still too early in the season for that.
A slow start cannot happen with UCLA in Salt Lake City on Thursday night, on offense or defense, because Utah, with a home crowd that’s sure to be rowdy behind them, can easily gain encouragement and take advantage in what is a potential trap game.
The Bruins need to come out hard and fast, go for the quick knockout and take the Utes’ fans out of the equation – while UCLA is a solid favorite, if it comes down to the fourth quarter I can’t 100% say that they will have the odds in their favor.
The first quarter and half will be crucial for Mora and company; if the Bruins can start strong and avoid mistakes and a slow start, which they haven’t really been able to do, they’ll be okay in this Pac-12 opener.
If they don’t, well…let’s not even think about that.