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UCLA Football vs. Utah Defensive Preview: The Absent Run Game Will Be the Tipping Point

The Utes have one of the best run defenses in the country. Will the Bruins be able to get ANY yards on the ground Saturday?

Arizona v Utah Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images

Last year, Utah finished the season 10-3, even though their offense struggled to move the ball. Not much is different this year, as Utah has won four of their games by five points or less. Their defense came back strong with several key returners, and currently ranks 26th in the nation in total defense. But former Bruin DE Kylie Fitts is out with a season ending injury, and the Utes also had key departures with the graduation of starting tackle Viliseni Fauonuku and defensive end Jason Fanaika. Senior Stevie Tu’ikolovatu left for USC in hopes of getting more playing time. Statistically, Utah has an excellent run defense that will undoubtedly give the Bruins trouble on Saturday. Ten of their 11 starters on defense are upperclassmen. Let’s take a look at each position.

Defensive Line

Senior Hunter Dimick leads the lineman and is tied for the most sacks in the Pac-12 with five. He also assisted on the tackle that secured Utah’s win against BYU. Juniors Lowell Lotulelei (brother of Carolina Panther Star Lotulelei) and Filipo Mokofisi are also making a lot of noise on the line. Mokofisi has 26 total tackles, including five against USC and five for loss. Lotulelei clearly has talent in his blood, and he can be seen flattening players from other teams in Pac-12 highlight videos. If he has a breakout season, we could see him in next year’s draft. Senior Pita Taumoepenu can play either end position and is tied for second in the Pac-12 in forced fumbles with two. He had a career-high six tackles against BYU, which included a sack and a forced fumble. Again, Utah’s defense was highly touted at the beginning of the season as one of the best (if not the best) in the Pac 12. They rank 27th in rushing defense, which, with UCLA’s abysmal run game, will definitely be an issue on Saturday.


Leading the linebackers is junior Sunia Tauteoli in the Mac position. He had a season high 11 tackles and also forced a fumble against USC, and assisted on the tackle that prevented BYU's two-point conversion attempt on September 10. Playing in the Rover position is Kavika Luafatasaga, formerly of Arizona Western (and also a basketball player in high school). Last year as a Sophomore, he led his team with 93 tackles, including 16 tackles for loss and four sacks. Senior Dominique Hatfield out of Crenshaw High School missed spring training and the first three games of the season with an injury. He came back strong in Utah’s last three games and recorded 12 tackles and a two pass breakups, including five tackles and a pass breakup against USC.


Utah ranks 52nd in passing defense, which is something the Bruins can hopefully capitalize on. The Utes are much better up front than in the backfield, so whether or not Rosen plays (and whether or not receivers can catch balls) will be a huge factor. Chase Hansen could again play two ways as he did in 2015. He is a potential starter at strong safety, but missed spring camp while recovering from a season ending injury. He started in six games this year (five at strong safety, one at linebacker) and is second on the team with 35 tackles. Junior Marcus Williams is listed on the First-team All-Pac-12 for the safety position and is also a First-team Pac-12 All-Academic selection. He has started at free safety since his true freshman season and has played in all 32 games in his career with 25 starts. He is tied for the Pac-12 lead (tied for 7th in the NCAA) with three interceptions and tied for second in the league in picks per game (0.50). With this guy on the team, I don’t know how the Utes are only ranked 52nd in passing defense. Senior Reginald Porter made his first career interception and led Utah with seven tackles against BYU. In 2015, Porter led the team in pass break-ups and tied for second in the Pac-12 with 11. Porter has had a tough road to his senior year, after losing his starting job in 2013 and tearing his ACL in 2014. Senior Justin Thomas is an All-conference candidate and is starting his fourth season at nickel back. He will also see time at cornerback. In the past, Utah didn’t utilize the nickel position all that much, but in attempting to stop the pass-happy Pac-12 quarterbacks, they have incorporated more of the position into their defense.


As good as Utah’s defense is, UCLA is right there with them, so I truly believe this game will be low scoring and a battle of the defenses. According to today’s Spaulding Report, we still don’t know who our starting quarterback will be, and that will definitely play into Saturday’s outcome. On paper, we have the better quarterback in Josh Rosen. But as we’ve stated before, weak play on the line, a shoddy run game, and dropped passes will continue to plague this team.

Go Bruins!