First place on line when UCLA visits No. 7 Utah

Field Level Media

November 13, 2019 at 8:53 am.

How will a resurgent UCLA offense fare against Utah’s elite defense? The answer to that question will go a long way to deciding the key Pac-12 South clash on Saturday in Salt Lake City.

The Bruins (4-5, 4-2 Pac-12) haven’t enjoyed much success against the No. 7 Utes in recent seasons. They have lost three straight to Utah, with each of the past two defeats coming by 31-point margins. But a victory on Saturday would move UCLA into a tie for first place in the Pac-12 South.

Snapping the losing streak against the Utes (8-1, 5-1) on Saturday seems like a long-shot prospect. Utah leads the nation in rushing defense, allowing just 56 yards on the ground per game. The Utes also lead the Pac-12 in scoring defense (12.2 points per game) and total defense (246.3 yard per game).

Utah is making all of that stinginess count on the other side of the ball. The Utes lead the Pac-12 in rushing offense (207.8 ypg), passing yards per completion (14.0), and time of possession (35:12).

“We pride ourselves on being physical, and it starts with the run game and defending the run,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham told reporters. “That doesn’t change year in and year out. Typically, run yardage is more damaging than throw yardage to an opponent. If you can just cram the ball down their throat, that can be demoralizing.”

The Bruins are better equipped to weather the storm now than they were a month ago. Resurgent production from running back Joshua Kelley has helped UCLA string together a three-game winning streak. Kelley has tallied 466 yards and seven rushing touchdowns during that stretch. The senior is averaging 107.6 yards per game and has tallied four 100-yard games in his past five contests.

As a result of Kelley’s dominance, the Bruins have rushed for at least 200 yards in five straight games for the first time since 1978. Extending that streak against a Utah team that has held eight of nine opponents under 100 rushing yards will be a tall task.

“They’ve always had great defenses at Utah, and this is right up there with some of the best defenses I’ve seen Utah produce,” UCLA coach Chip Kelly said.

Stopping Utah’s offense offers an equal challenge with quarterback Tyler Huntley nearing 100 percent again. Huntley has endured limited mobility since sustaining a knee sprain against Arizona State on Oct. 19. The senior did not have his usual burst against California and Washington, but he is said to be almost back to his usual form after a bye week.

That’s good news for the Utes. Huntley completed at least 70 percent of all his passes in his first six games before the injury. He knows where to pick his spots. Huntley leads the Pac-12 in completion percentage (.738), pass efficiency (182.5), and passing yards per attempt (10.8).

“It’s unbelievable the way he dissects coverages and lets me know where I need to be and I get there at the right time,” Utah receiver Bryan Thompson said. “Being a smart quarterback helps the receiver so much. I appreciate Tyler more than he actually knows.”

UCLA has made strides in pass defense since the start of October. The Bruins have held two of their past three opponents to fewer than 200 passing yards and a completion rate lower than 60 percent.

“Nothing has really changed,” UCLA linebacker Josh Woods said. “We’re just dialed in and practicing hard from Monday to the game. Our preparation has led into better execution.”

UCLA holds an 11-6 lead in the all-time series with Utah. The Utes haven’t lost to the Bruins, however, since falling 17-9 at home in 2015.