The Pac-12 South race has taken multiple turns in just a few weeks, and Saturday’s contest between UCLA and Utah in Salt Lake City could present another.
Utah (4-3, 3-1 Pac-12) gained the inside track with three straight wins to open league play, including double-digit routs of divisional opponents Southern California and Arizona State on Oct. 9 and Oct. 16, respectively.
However, the Utes sustained their first conference loss last week at Oregon State, 42-34, giving up a season-high point total. The result left Utah tied with Arizona State (5-2, 3-1) for the division lead.
Utah’s typically stout run defense allowed 6.3 yards per carry and 260 yards in total at Corvallis.
“We’re just not quite where we need to be up front yet,” Utes coach Kyle Whittingham said of the defensive line in his Monday press conference. “We’ve had flashes during the course of the year, but not quite enough consistency.”
The loss of linebacker Devin Lloyd to a targeting penalty in the second half was “obviously a blow,” Whittingham said, but not “key to the whole thing.”
Still, Oregon State scored two touchdowns after Lloyd’s ejection to take then extend the lead. Lloyd, who ranks second in the nation with 13 tackles for loss, will miss the first half of Saturday’s matchup with UCLA.
The Bruins (5-3, 3-2) come into Utah needing a win to keep their hopes of reaching the Pac-12 championship game realistically alive. UCLA trails both Utah and Arizona State by a game in the loss column but took a head-to-head loss to the Sun Devils on Oct. 2.
UCLA took its second Pac-12 loss of the season last week when a furious rally against Oregon fell short in a 34-31 defeat.
The Bruins trailed by 17 points early in the fourth quarter, but a Jordan Genmark Heath interception set up one touchdown drive just four minutes after another.
Jay Shaw picked off an Oregon pass to give UCLA possession with a chance to win or tie, but quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson sustained a shoulder injury on the next drive, an ailment that could sideline him Saturday.
Thompson-Robinson was dressed but did not throw in practice on Monday. That leaves Ethan Garbers as UCLA’s likely starter.
Garbers, a Washington transfer, went 2-of-5 for 22 yards and was intercepted on the Bruins’ final possession.
UCLA’s run game has been outstanding in wins, going for at least 204 yards in those five games. In the three losses, the Bruins have averaged 141.7 rushing yards per game, including the 110 they gained against Oregon.
Thompson-Robinson’s mobility has been an important weapon along with running backs Brittain Brown and Zach Charbonnet. The quarterback has six rushing touchdowns and is averaging almost 46 rushing yards per game.
The UCLA defense has been solid against the run, but Oregon was the second opponent to clear 5 yards per carry against the Bruins. The other was Arizona State.
Utah comes in averaging 5.3 yards per carry behind a primary three-man attack of running backs Tavion Thomas and Micah Bernard as well as quarterback Cameron Rising.
Loading up to focus on the run will not be an option, however, as Rising has dramatically improved Utah’s passing offense since taking over as the starting quarterback. He has thrown for at least 247 yards in each of the past three games.
“You can’t defend totally one thing, then not take advantage of another thing,” UCLA coach Chip Kelly said at his Monday media availability. “(Oregon quarterback) Anthony Brown, we gave him too many shots and too many easy completions, and we’ve got to be able to do both (defend the run and the pass).”
–Field Level Media