Welcome back to Bruins Nation’s opponent preview series for the 2019 UCLA Bruins football season! We are taking a look at an upcoming opponent this year, examining their strengths and weaknesses, and making a bold prediction regarding the outcome.
It’s time to take a look at UCLA’s tenth opponent: the Utah Utes.
Congratulations to Kyle Whittingham and the Utes for finally winning the Pac-12 South, accomplishing something that Jim Mora, Clay Helton, Rich Rodriguez, Todd Graham, and Mike McIntyre all managed to accomplish before them. Is that a bit unfair? Perhaps, but considering McIntyre is on that list despite having a tougher rebuild than Whittingham ever went through, I don’t think that criticism is entirely unwarranted.
That said, it does feel like the complete collapse of the Pac-12 South took away a bit from the fact that this was Kyle Whittingham’s best Utah team in the Pac-12 era. Utah actually had an offense! The defense was just as good as it normally was! Utah still dropped games to last year’s conference front-runners in Washington and Washington State but, beyond that, they were clearly the best team in the division by any stretch, and that’s not something Utah has been able to say before.
Everyone from last year is back. Honestly, I could end this section with just that. But let’s go through this group quickly.
Zack Moss is one of the best running backs in the conference, and ran for 1096 yards before injuring his knee and ending his season after nine games. The biggest question will be whether the injury is a thing of the past or whether it will be a lingering concern this season. The Utes should be better on the ground regardless, as they’ll see the return of Devona’e Henry-Cole who missed all of 2018.
Tyler Huntley is also back after injuring his collarbone late in the season last year. Before the injury, Huntley truly looked like he had unlocked the best version of himself, especially after the back-to-back losses to the Washington schools, as his completion percentage only dipped below 70% once in four conference wins to beat UCLA in that game. If Huntley can show off that version of himself for an entire season, the Utah offense should be among the conference’s best.
Also, a quick side note: it’s not surprising that Utah’s offense fell off a cliff last year once Moss and Huntley got hurt. Replacing one of them was possible, but replacing both became a lesson in futility.
The Utah receivers are all intact from last year also. Future New England Patriot Britain Covey will continue to terrorize teams from the slot, while Jaylen Dixon really broke out late, and will look to build on that success. Oh, and the line is big and experienced. So yeah, there are all kinds of problems to deal with here.
Another year, another strong Utah defense.
Essentially the entirety of Utah’s defensive line returns from last year, and considering they had the 11th ranked rush defense via S&P+, you could probably expect more of the same here in 2019. The Utes have a pair of seniors in John Penisini and Leki Fotu at the tackle spots, and a host of defensive end options, including Branlee Anae, who had 15.5 tackles for loss and 8 sacks last year.
The bigger question will be at linebacker. Utah’s defensive line does an amazing job of occupying blockers and letting the linebackers do whatever they want, but the Utes have to replace two major pieces from last year’s defense in this spot. Francis Bernard will try and keep some level of continuity, but the Utes will be relying on a host of transfers, including former Bruin Mique Juarez, to keep the train running smoothly.
If you were going to attack the Utah defense, your best bet for sustained success is through the air, where the Utes only ranked 40th in passing defense via S&P+. There are playmakers here, including Javelin Guidry, brother of current UCLA DB Elisha Guidry, but the group lost both starting safeties from last year and, considering it was already the “weak” link of the defense, there is a rather high burden of proof for this unit to show growth.
Utah’s winning this one. It would take something crazy like the Utes losing Huntley and Moss again for UCLA to have a shot on the road and, since I am not in the business of predicting injuries, I’m going to say the Pac-12 South favorites win. But since this is bold predictions, I might as well say that I think this dynamic should flip as soon as next year. Enjoy it while it lasts, Kyle!
Utah wins 38-20.