The UCLA Bruins football team (4-5, 4-2 Pac-12) faces its toughest challenge of the second half of this season tomorrow at 5 pm PT, when the Bruins square off against the Utah Utes (8-1, 5-1 Pac-12) in the rarified air of Salt Lake City.
While UCLA is hot, having won three straight games, the Utes are even hotter, winners of five straight and ranked number 7 in the College Football Playoff poll. Utah has beaten the Bruins the last three years, with the last UCLA win coming in 2015 in Salt Lake City by the score of 17-9 with Josh Rosen leading the Bruins. In other words, an eternity ago.
Can UCLA beat Utah? Stranger things have happened in the history of UCLA football. 13-9, for one. UCLA upsetting #2 Washington in Seattle in 1990, for another. But, for me, to honestly predict that UCLA will beat Utah, I have to manufacture a fake smile, muster up confidence and almost lie to myself. Which brings up the musical selection . . .
Nelphi, Utah, is about an hour and a half drive from Rice-Eccles Stadium, home of the Utah football team. It is actually closer to BYU, as Provo is about halfway between Nelphi (population 5,389), and Salt Lake City.
But BYU isn’t on the schedule, yet I am still picking Nelphi today because it is the small town hometown of Brandon Flowers, lead singer of the alternative rock band, The Killers, who had a series of mega-hits fifteen years ago—hell, has it been THAT long?—and continued success since that time. Several of those mega-hits came from the band’s debut album Hot Fuss; I’m picking my favorite of that bunch, “Smile Like You Mean It”:
Me: “I think UCLA can beat Utah in Salt Lake this weekend.” Big cheesy smile.
Everybody Else: Smile like you mean it, orlando.
Let’s start off by addressing the elephant in the room. Utah has the number one rushing offense in the nation, allowing only 56 yards per game. That is stingy!
Joshua Kelley leads the Pac-12 in rushing yards per game, averaging 107.6 yards each contest. It is no secret that UCLA has been playing better football consistent with Kelley getting healthier and getting more reps. The line is also starting to settle in and play more as a unit. During UCLA’s three-game winning streak, Kelley has had his highest, second highest, and fourth highest rushing totals on the season. Kelley also has seven rushing touchdowns in those three games.
But UCLA’s leading rusher will have stiff competition to get into the end zone. Utah has only given up three rushing touchdowns all season. Kelley versus Utah’s rushing D is obviously a key to the game. This is a three-part question. PREGAME GUESS NUMBER ONE: How many yards will Joshua Kelley rush for versus the top ranked rushing defense in the nation? Will he score a touchdown? If so, how many?
Utah’s senior quarterback, Tyler Huntley, has never lost to UCLA. Neither has Utah’s senior running back Zack Moss.
In 2017, as a sophomore versus UCLA, Huntley shredded the Bruins with his arm (15-22, 234 yds., 4 TDs, 0 Ints) and his legs, (18 rushes, 93 yards) as the Utes cruised to victory in Salt Lake City, 48-17. Then-sophomore Moss had 153 yards rushing in that game, with two TDs.
Last year, in Pasadena, it wasn’t much better for the Bruins in a Utah 41-10 victory. But is was Moss who did most of the damage, carrying the ball 26 times for 211 yards and three touchdowns. Utah didn’t need to rely too much on Huntley because UCLA simply could not stop Utah’s rushing attack. Utah only threw the ball 22 times in the game (versus 50 rushing attempts).
With both Huntley and Moss back for their senior seasons, the UCLA defense has its work cut out for it. I could ask for full stat lines but I will instead simplify the second guess this week, making it a simple two-parter. PREGAME GUESS NUMBER TWO: How many touchdowns will Huntley score (rushing and passing) versus UCLA’s defense? How many touchdowns will Moss score?
Although Utah is the overwhelming favorite over UCLA in this game, there is one statistic in which both teams are virtually identical. Penalties.
Utah is #87 in the nation, committing a total of 63 penalties on the season, for 546 yards in penalties. UCLA is right behind them, at #88 in the nation, flagged 64 times for a total of 534 penalty yards. Who wins the penalty battle tomorrow? PREGAME GUESS NUMBER THREE: Which team will commit more penalties, UCLA or Utah?
That wraps up the tenth week of PPGs this season. Let us know your thoughts and make your guesses in the comment section below.