This is a unit that the UCLA defense manhandled in last season's 21-14 win. Through the first 57 minutes of the game, the defense was pitching a shutout against Travis Wilson in his first collegiate start. The only score on the board was a result of the infamous Steven Manfro punt return fumble in the endzone. Utah ended up putting together a 90-yard drive against a prevent defense (my least favorite part of defensive schemes at the end of games) and scoring their only offensive touchdown after an Eric Kendricks tackle knocked Wilson out of the game and backup quarterback Jon Hays threw a fade to Dres Anderson on 4th and Goal. Prior to that drive, UCLA's defense had only given up 219 yards.
That Utah offense was a mediocre unit, so far with this year's version that has not been the case.
The Utes come into Thursday averaging 504.8 yards per game (16th in the NCAA) and 7.37 yards per play. The rushing game comes in at 31st in the NCAA (218.8 yards, 5.68 per carry). The passing offense has been similarly effective coming in at 30th in the NCAA at 286 yards per game. That's a big improvement after looking pretty average all around last season. Their scoring offense is really bloated by a 70 point game against Weber State (scheduling FCS teams will always earn scorn from me), but ranks 19th in the country at 42 points per game.
Where UCLA's defense has a huge advantage, besides the clear one in overall talent, is on 3rd down. Utah's offensive numbers are impressive, but they are terrible on 3rd down, 92nd in the NCAA (only converted 19 of 54 3rd downs). The Bruins defense is 13th in the nation in 3rd down defense (12 out of 45, only allowing a 26.7% conversion rate).
Now that the generalities are out of the way, we can take a look at the players that put together the nation's #16 offense.
This was their starting unit in their last game against Utah, I'll take a look at these guys and some key role players outside of that group.
Let's start with the players up front.
The two Jeremiahs make up the left side. Poutasi (6'5, 345, Sophomore) and Tofaeono (6'2, 320, Senior) both started 6 or more games last season. Poutasi was a Honorable Mention All-Pac-12 guy at right tackle as a freshman and moved to the blindside this year. He'll be a good test for Cassius Marsh on that side. The rest of the unit made up by a senior at center in Jones (6'3, 305) who was a guard the last three season, a redshirt junior transfer at right guard in Salt (6'2, 325) and a redshirt sophomore at right tackle in Alono (6'2, 305). This unit has done a nice job of keeping Wilson's jersey clean, having allowed only 4 sacks through 4 games. That was an issue in this game last season, as Wilson got hit a lot and it clearly affected him in his first start. Something to keep an eye on.
The Utes have 5 players with 8 or more catches, so those are the guys I'll focus on. The headliner is Dres Anderson, an IE guy out of JW North. He's leading the team with 18 catches for 404 yards and 3 touchdowns. He's got good size at 6'1" and scored the only offensive touchdown for the Utes against the Bruins last year.
Their next leading receiver is actually their leading rusher in running back Bubba Poole. Poole has 15 catches for 120 yards, I'll get into his play more in the next section.
The next two receivers are both big targets in Sean Fitzgerald (6'3, 200 pound senior from Mission Viejo) and Anthony Denham (6'4", 222 pound senior from Monterey Park). Fitzgerald has 14 catches for 231 yards and 2 TDs and Denham has 10 catches for 142 yards and 1 TD.
The focus with these wideouts will be preventing the big play. A great deal of each player's yardage this season is a result of huge plays. Anderson's longest reception is 74 yards, Fitzgerald's is 80 yards and Denham's is 51 yards. With the Utes' struggles on 3rd down, keeping the huge gain in check will be a key.
Finally, redshirt junior tight end Jake Murphy (6'4, 252) is a player to keep an eye on. On the year, he has 8 catches for 152 yards and a TD and he had a nice game (4 catches for 65 yards) against UCLA last year.
Last year the Utes inability to run the ball really hurt their offense as a whole. The Utes finished 2012 with the 94th rushing offense in the country at only 128 yards, while 2011 yielding a similar 134 yards per game. This year, the Utes have been moving the ball on the ground well and that is the biggest reason why they've been successful on offense.
Bubba Poole (6'0, 196) is a redshirt sophomore who transfered into Utah last year from Saddleback College. He's a good sized back and has had a great start to the year, rushing 58 times for 304 yards (5.2 YPC) and oddly scoring only once. He's complimented by Lucky Radley (5'8, 187) who has carried 14 times for 112 yards and 2 touchdowns.
If nothing else, these backs dominate the battle for best names. What school can top a backfield of Lucky and Bubba?
Travis Wilson has also been essential in the Utes' success on the ground, rushing 32 times for 251 yards and scoring 5 touchdowns. He's sneaky athletic and UCLA will have to do a good job of containing Wilson from picking up yards scrambling.
Travis Wilson has made a huge leap in his first season as the unquestioned starter. He's unquestionably got the size at 6'7", 240. Through 4 games his numbers are eerily close to Brett Hundley's. He's completed just over 64% of his passes (74-115) and thrown for 9 touchdowns with 3 interceptions. His 1118 yards nearly surpass his total from last year (1311) in only 4 games.
As far as QBs go, Wilson is probably the best pure passer the Bruins have played thus far. It'll be a good test for the Bruins secondary to start off Pac-12 play.
Well, there you have it. The Utah offense. Thursday night kicks off the Pac-12 season for the Bruins on a national stage. We will all get to see if the big improvements of the Utah offense and the UCLA defense are for real or a product of the competition they've played.
Until next time, Go Bruins!