Thursday night is going to be a tough test for our Bruins. Not only will UCLA be facing an opponent they were barely able to put away at the Rose Bowl last season (winning 21-14), they'll be doing it in Salt Lake City against an opponent with a more complete coaching staff. Fortunately, their special teams play is shakier than last season, so if the Bruins play disciplined and smart football this Thursday, they might finally shake off their Thursday night/Utah bad vibes and pull out a solid road win.
Let's begin with the Utes' coaching situation: Kyle Whittingham is in his 10th season in charge of the Utes after taking over for Urban Meyer in 2004. UCLA fans are plenty familar with him, as he's gone 2-2 against the Bruins over the past decade, with his highlights against UCLA being beating the 44-6 beat down he handed the Bruins in Salt Lake City in 2007 and the 31-6 whooping he delivered in SLC in 2011. Troubling for UCLA fans: he's never lost to the Bruins in Salt Lake City.
Whittingham has put together some impressive Utah squads in that decade and it looks like this year's version isn't the kind of pushover UCLA would hope for on a road trip to the mountain states (like Colorado was last year). Whittingham was one of the hot coaching names in demand after some of those deep runs, but the past few seasons of so-so results in the Pac-12 have quieted down the talk of him being a Tier 1 candidate.
However, the most important element of the coaching staff isn't the stability provided by Whittingham, but the dynamic offensive scheme run by new offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson. While Erickson has struggled to consistency find a winning formula as a head coach, the one thing about all of his teams is that they could score, and Utah has improved by leaps and bounds from last year: under Erickson, the Utes are scoring 42 points per game, as compared to last season's measly 26.7 points per game. Sure, the sample size isn't huge, but Utah's offense is much stronger than the one we barely got by at home last year. On the defensive side of the ball, Utah is led by long-time Whittingham assistant Kalani Fifita Sitake, who has also been the Utes' key recruiter. The defense hasn't changed much, if at all, from last season's version (surrendering 25.1 points per game last year, as compared to 24.2 so far this season), but by holding steady, it's translated into more wins as the offense isn't an anemic joke like the prior year.
Flipping over to the special teams, there's a bit of change as the Utes are having to replace former kicker Colem Petersen (8 for 13 on FGs in 2012) with redshirt freshman Andy Phillips (7 for 7 on FGs so far in 2013), while also replacing graduating punter Sean Sellwood (38 punts, 46.5 yards per punt, 9 inside the 20 in 2012) with sophomore punter Tom Hackett (23 punts, 43.8 yards per punt, 9 inside the 20 in 2013), but so far the transition has been pretty seamless. Likewise, it seems Utah is still trying to find who is their most explosive return men, with Whittingham employing a return-by-committee season (at least from the early season numbers), with last year's leading return men still in the squad.
UCLA will head up to Salt Lake City this week and gear up for their Thursday night match against the Utes: let's hope Mora is what UCLA needs to finally get over the Whittingham and Salt Lake City hump.