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Utah Utes Preview: Offense

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Devontae Booker suffered an injury in the Arizona game. Will he be healthy enough to play against UCLA and, if so, can UCLA's rushing defense stop him?

Utah's senior running back, Devontae Booker
Utah's senior running back, Devontae Booker
Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images

Both the UCLA Bruins’ and Utah Utes’ football teams are coming off tough losses last week, to Washington State and Arizona, respectively. Both teams, however, are still capable of winning the PAC 12 South. For both of these teams, the playoffs essentially begin at 3:30 p.m. PT on Saturday. Win and live to fight again during the last week of the regular season. Lose and you are eliminated from the PAC 12 South race and relegated to a mid-tier bowl, at best.

Needless to say, there is a lot on the line.

The game will be played in Salt Lake City. In the recent past, UCLA has not done well playing football in the state of Utah. UCLA has played a total of four games in the last eight years (before this season) in the state of Utah. Here are the results:

Year

Opponent

Win or Loss

Score

UCLA Coach

2007

Utah

Loss

44-6

Dorrell

2008

BYU

Loss

59-0

Neuheisel

2011

Utah

Loss

31-6*

Neuheisel

2013

Utah

Win

27-34**

Mora

* This game was played in November on an icy field and wind chill that made it feel like it was 19 degrees.

** Utah went 5-7 in 2013, tied for the worst Utah record during the Kyle Whittingham era. The last time Utah was worse was a 4-7 season in 2000, which is technically in the 20th century, not the 21st century (stay with me, here, the century thing will come into play later).

Each of the three losses was brutal. Period. End of story. Yes, those were the Dorrell and Neu years and now we have Jim L. Mora.

And Mora, two years ago and in his second season at UCLA, won in his one and only game in Salt Lake City. But it was a very close game to the worst Utah team of the Kyle Whittingham era, which is now in its 11th season. Travis Wilson (still Utah’s starting quarterback) was driving the Utes to a game tying score at UCLA’s 23 yard line with 26 second left, when Myles Jack ended the game with an interception (shades of BYU this season). In fact, UCLA picked off Travis Wilson six (!) times that game. Here are the interceptions if you want to check them out:

So arguably the best UCLA team in the 21st century (was last year "better" than 2013?) almost went to OT against the worst Utah team of the 21st century (there’s the reference), after that team threw 6 picks. Not quite the same dynamic that we appear to be looking at this season (although a lot of the players ARE the same, as shown by the video above). And if Wilson throws 6 picks again (no way in hell), UCLA had damn well better win!

Although weather was a big issue in the 2011 loss, the conditions for this Saturday’s game do not look ominous. According to weather.com, it will be partly cloudly with a high of 49 degrees and a slight wind.

With this history in mind, how does the Utah offense look? What can UCLA expect to see when it is on defense? Let’s explore the numbers, look at each position group, and throw out some analysis.

Statistics

Total Offense

Utah is #75 in the country in total offense, averaging 389.1 yards per game (YPG). UCLA’s defense ranks #67, giving up an average of 400.5 YPG. Based on these numbers alone, I think that it is safe to say that Utah will gain somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 yards this Saturday.

Rushing Offense

Utah ranks #51 in rushing offense, grinding out an average of 184 YPG on the ground. UCLA’s rushing defense has been a problem since losing Eddie Vanderdoes, Myles Jack, and Fabian Moreau. Presently, it is ranked #84 on the country, yielding 182.2 YPG (and this much improved after Wazzu barely ran the ball on the Bruins; 22 carries for 38 yards). Again, the numbers say that we should expect that Utah will rush for about 180-185 yards this weekend.

Passing Offense

Utah is #91 in the nation in passing, averaging 205.1 TPG. UCLA concedes about that much, giving up an average of 218.3 yards per game, good for #58 in the nation. Again, Utah’s numbers in the passing game match up with UCLA’s passing defense. We can expect around 200-220 yards in the air while Utah has the ball on Saturday.

Analysis of Statistics

The numbers Utah puts up with the ball are very similar to the numbers UCLA concedes on defense. This is an interesting dynamic. But the game is not played on paper, and one great uncertainty for the Utes at running back will have a huge impact on this game, likely making some of these numbers insignificant.

Quarterbacks

Travis Wilson seems like he has been the Utah quarterback forever. Well, he HAS played a lot in the last 3 and ½ years. Wilson took over midway through his freshman year and has been "the guy" at QB since that time. Even though he missed a few games toward the end of his sophomore year and almost had to quit football because of the injury, he has battled back and continues to lead the Utes in his senior season.

Wilson is very solid at his position but his numbers show that he really hasn’t gotten appreciably better throwing the ball since his freshman year. Of course, he has a senior’s moxie, which cannot be measured in statistics. Wilson is also a huge threat with his legs (95 carries for 367 yards and six touchdowns this season), and running quarterbacks have been a huge Achilles heel for UCLA this season.

Wilson can make mistakes and, as the video about shows, he made a lot of them as a sophomore in 2013. He has, however, matured with age and UCLA clearly cannot expect six interceptions from Travis Wilson this Saturday.

UCLA fans will remember Wilson’s backup, senior Kendal Thompson, who took it to the Bruins last season once Wilson went out of the game with an injury. Thompson went 10 of 13 for 95 yards and a touchdown, with no interceptions, against the Bruins. More importantly, Thompson hurt UCLA with his legs, carrying the ball 19 times for 83 yards. Thompson could see some time at QB even if Wilson is healthy throughout the game.

Running Backs

The centerpiece of Utah’s running game (and their offense) is senior running back, Devontae Booker. Booker injured his leg in the second quarter of the Arizona game and, although he continued to play, he was not at full strength for the remainder of the game. At the time of this writing, Head Coach Kyle Whittingham has ruled Booker "questionable" for the UCLA game. Obviously, this is a huge game for both teams. If Booker is even close to being himself physically, I expect to see him play.

Last season against the Bruins, Booker had 33 carries for 156 yards and a touchdown in the Utes’ victory at the Rose Bowl. Many of us want to selectively forget that game, but please recall that UCLA took the lead with 4:50 left. After that, Utah methodically drove for the winning field goal with 34 seconds left. The Utes never passed the ball. UCLA could not stop the run. Not including both the play in which Thompson centered the ball on the field and the ensuing field goal itself, Utah ran eight plays during that drive, all of them runs, and six of them were runs by Booker. On those six carries, with the game on the line, UCLA conceded a total of 40 yards to Booker. Thompson had the two other carries for 24 yards (again not counting his the play to center the ball for the field goal, which lost a yard).

This season, Booker is one of the top back in the PAC 12, with 1,261 yards rushing, a 4.7 yard per carry (YPC) average, and 11 touchdowns. Last season, he racked up 1,512, with a 5.2 YPC and 10 TDs. Booker is also a threat to catch the ball out of the backfield, with 37 catches for 318 yards this season, and 43 grabs for 306 yards last season.

If Booker cannot go, or if he is limited, Utah will lean on Joe Williams. Williams, a junior, on has 18 carries this season, for 78 yards. Obviously, this is a huge drop off. Of course, Wilson and Thompson can run the ball, so the read-option would likely still be an effective weapon for the Utes. If they wanted to, Utah has the personnel to copy what Arizona did to UCLA during the second half of the Arizona game.

Wide Receivers

If Booker was a wide receiver, he would be third on the team in receiving yardage, which says a lot about how important he is to Utah’s success. The two guys with more yards, however, are pretty good.

Britain Covey, a freshman, leads the team in catches (41), receiving yards (518), and touchdowns (4). Covey is a speedster at 5’8", 166 lbs. and has a promising college career ahead of him. Kenneth Scott, a senior, presents a different challenge, at 6’3", 208 lbs. Scott has hauled in 33 passes for 403 yards and three touchdowns on the season. He could present match-up problems if facing some of UCLA’s smaller DBs.

Tyrone Smith and Bubba Poole also see consistent action at the wide receiver position, but neither has found the end zone this season. Smith, a 6’4", 188 lb. freshman, has 15 grabs for 152 yards. Poole, a 6’1", 197 lb. senior, has 17 catches for 101 yards.

Although Utah’s receivers as a group are not stellar, the Utes use Booker and their tight ends in the passing game, which makes their receivers more effective.

Tight End

Utah lost their starting tight end, Siale Fakailoatonga, on October 17th in their win over Arizona State. Sophomore, Harrison Handley, has stepped in nicely, with 15 catches for 210 yards and 4 touchdowns. Caleb Repp, a freshman, fills in for Handley. When Repp is one the field in the red zone, look out. He has two catches on the season, both for touchdowns. Unlike several of the teams UCLA has played this season, Utah actively uses their tight ends as weapons in the passing game and UCLA must be ready to defend these guys.

Offensive Line

Hiva Lutui is a versatile redshirt junior who should get the start a center. Lutui has started games at both guard and center this season. Lutui is listed at 6’1", 295 lbs.

Redshirt junior, Isaac Asiata, will start at left guard. He is a leader on the line, starting all games at left guard this season. He also started all games at guard last season, and had four starts at tackle in his redshirt freshman year. The right guard spot will be manned by Salesi Uhatafe, who has started most of this season’s games at that position. Uhatafe, a redshirt sophomore, played in all 13 games last season, with 5 starts at right guard. Both guards are listed at 6’4", 315 lbs.

Similarly, both of Utah’s tackles are listed at 6’5", 300 lbs. Redshirt junior, J.J. Dielman should get the start a right tackle, where he has started the last 23 games going back to the beginning of last season. True junior, Sam Tevi, has started all games at left tackle this season, and that does not figure to change on Saturday.

Although Lutui is relatively inexperienced at center (might Kenny Clark force some bad snaps like he did against Arizona?), the rest of the line is experienced. They are also men. All but Tevi are redshirts, and have both size and age in their favor. UCLA’s front seven will have their work cut out for them.

Analysis

UCLA might get a huge bail out if Devontae Booker is not able to play. If he can go, the Bruins will need to play their best game of the season on defense to shut down Utah’s rushing attack. UCLA will need to do better against Utah’s passing attack than they did against Wazzu. They should, despite Wilson’s experience. My biggest fear is Utah’s quarterbacks running the ball, with both Wilson and Thompson running the read option against the Bruin defense.

That is it for the preview of Utah’s offense. Look for BN’s preview of the Utes’ defense tomorrow, to see how the Bruins offensive attack stacks up against Utah’s "D."

Go Bruins!!!