Last weekend’s game at the Rose Bowl ended up being a nail biter, but I can’t say I ever felt like UCLA was going to lose. Sure, it was close, but that game was the Bruins’ to win (or lose) from the beginning, and even when Dorian Thompson-Robinson went down, I just knew they’d get the victory.
Now, the Utah Utes are paying the Bruins a visit and it could be a much different story. For the first time this year, Utah is ranked in the Top 25 and they have a share of first place in the Pac-12 South, holding the tie breaker with Southern Cal. They’re on a hot streak right now and that streak comes to Pasadena on Friday.
The Utes are ranked #7 in the country in total defense, which is nine spots ahead Washington, the Pac-12 team who comes the closest. Several Pac-12 teams are in the Top 25 in total defense, including Washington State and UC Berkeley. So, the Bruins should be no stranger to playing against top-notch defenses. Let’s take a look at what the Utes are bringing to the Rose Bowl defensively on Friday.
Last weekend, the Utes held Southern Cal to just 73 rushing yards, which is the fifth time this season they’ve kept an opponent in double digits on the ground. Utah only allowed 205 yards of total offense, which is less than half of what UCLA allowed against Arizona last weekend.
In researching the Utah defense, I came across the nickname “Sack Lake City,” which is pretty indicative of the talent that continually rotates out of this school. Utah puts top defensive linemen into the NFL year after year and 2017 was no exception. Three senior defensive lineman needed replacing this year, including former Bruin and current Chicago Bear Kylie Fitts. They are continually able to back fill with new talent to replace the old.
Up front defensive linemen Leki Fotu and Hauati Pututau will be in the Bruins’ faces and both played well last weekend. They each had four tackles and a sack. Redshirt freshman Mika Tafua has also made a splash this year while Bradlee Anae will round out the front line.
Utah is also stacked at this position, returning veterans Cody Barton and Donavan Thompson. Chase Hansen has moved over from safety and made the move seamlessly. So, this group is pretty difficult to stop. Hansen was on the All-Pac 12 team in 2017 at his former position and leads the team in tackles, with 63 total and 14 tackles for loss. He and sophomore corner Jaylon Johnson lead the team with two interceptions apiece.
Barton is right behind Hansen with 53 tackles of his own and four pass breakups. So, whoever ends up quarterbacking for UCLA is going to have to watch out for these guys. Juniors Francis Bernard and Tyrone Young-Smith round out the group that the Bruins will most likely see on Friday.
Utah’s secondary put up NFL caliber stats on Saturday when they took down Southern Cal. Safety Marquise Blair had five tackles and Johnson added his second interception of the season when he picked off JT Daniels at the end of the third quarter. Recording interceptions is something the defense has been focusing on, and it’s starting to click. In their first three games, they only had two as a team. Through last Saturday, they’ve upped that to seven.
This unit also specializes in pass breakups, with defensive back Javelin Guidry recording seven so far this year and safety Corrion Ballard notching five of his own. Junior cornerback Julian Blackmon is second on the team with six. So, the Bruin passing game could take a big hit on Friday. I’d expect to see more yards on the ground and reliance on Josh Kelley’s legs knowing how Utah’s defense is coming together.
The defensive statistics for this team are ridiculous. This will, without a doubt, be the toughest defense the UCLA Bruins have seen so far. So, they are going to have their work cut out for them. Utah was able to stop Southern Cal on their first TEN third downs and it’s definitely not going to be any better for the Bruins.
What also worries me is the point totals that Utah has been able to put up in the last few games, but that discussion is for another preview. This defensive line is going to be a major test for the Bruin offense, and UCLA can’t afford to lose another quarterback. When you consider that and their tackle-crazy linebackers and passing-game-ruining secondary, Friday might just be a good time to focus on the Dodgers.