Welcome to Bruins Nation’s opponent preview series for the UCLA Bruins 2018 football season! Each week, we will be taking a look at an upcoming opponent this year, examine their strengths and weaknesses, and make a bold prediction regarding the outcome.
This week, we take a look at UCLA’s Week 9 opponent: the Utah Utes.
This is going to sound like I’m trivializing the Utes, but I was honestly shocked to remember that Utah only won 7 games this last year, and needed a bowl game victory to do that. I think it speaks to how consistent Utah has been over the past few years prior, where from 2014-2016 they had win totals of 9, 10, and 9. Utah’s been pretty consistent since an early rough stretch in the Pac-12, so to see them take a step back was odd.
But, in looking over their season and personnel, it really shouldn’t have been. Utah raced out to an early 4-0 record against mediocre opponents, then lost 6 of their last 8 in Pac-12 play to finish 3-6 in conference (this actually gave them a worse conference record than the Bruins, which allowed them to go to the relatively better Cactus Bowl instead of the Heart of Dallas Bowl). There was a good amount of youth in key positions last year, but what also stood out to me was the record in close games. In games decided by 8 points or less (essentially, one TD and a 2-pt conversion) last year, the Utes went 2-4. Had the Utes instead gone .500 in those games, they’d have ended up with an 8 win season and things may not have seemed as odd.
QB Tyler Huntley was a sophomore last year (which is going to be a theme for the offense), and while he got hurt for a few games last year, including close losses to Stanford and USC, he still had an effective year, throwing for 2411 yards while rushing for an additional 537 yards. He took far too many sacks last year (31 in total, which really does help to explain the injury stuff) and with the departure of Troy Williams, Utah may try to limit the amount of times Huntley takes a hit, if only to keep him healthy. That could prove to be helpful for any defense facing the Utes.
The good news for Utah is that they probably don’t need Huntley running the ball anyway. Zack Moss (again, a sophomore last year) ran for 1173 yards last year, averaging 5.5 YPC and had 10 touchdowns, 7 of which came in the final 5 games of the season. He should be better this year, not just due to his own experience, but also the experience growth of the Utah offensive line, which only returned one starter last year but now has a host of starting experience to rely upon.
The passing game of Utah will be the one to watch. Top receivers Darren Carrington II and Raelon Singleton are gone now, but there were a host of options that contributed a bit last year, including Demari Simpkins and Siaosi Mariner, both sophomores last year, and Samson Nacua and Bryan Thompson, both freshman last year. In any case, the Utes would love to see the passing game become much more explosive this year, as that could help take the offense to the next level. Utah’s offense was wildly efficient last year, ranking 19th in success rate, but were not very explosive, ranking 94th in IsoPPP (essentially, a measurement of how big your successful plays were). It fits with Utah’s whole aesthetic, in which the Utes would love to grind their opponents down, but being just a bit better in the explosive department would help them in close games.
One of the constants of the Pac-12 has been Utah’s defense; even in the bad years, the worst Utah has ever ranked in defensive S&P+ was 44th. Last year’s defense was, again, very good, ranking 34th in defensive S&P+.
The strength of the Utah defense last year was the pass defense, which should continue to be a strength this year. Utah had a superb combination of great pass rush and top-end secondary that made it hard for teams to pass against them, and the Utes only allowed 56% of passes to be completed against them. Bradlee Anae was a nightmare in the pass rush, tallying 7 sacks and 10 TFLs, and he should theoretically get some help this year from someone (one of the constants of the Utah defense is that they get great production from unknown talents all the time).
That secondary, though. Julian Blackmon had 4 interceptions and 6 other passes broken up, and was, to continue the theme here, a sophomore last year. Jaylon Johnson added in 7 passes defended as a freshman last year. Behind them, the Utes return 5 of their 6 safeties that saw playing time last year, including strong safety Marquise Blair, who went down with an injury late in the year. No matter how you look at it, this is a strong, strong unit.
If there is a place to attack the Utes, it will surprisingly be on the ground. When I think of Utah, one of the first things that comes to mind is a host of stout linemen on both sides of the ball, but Utah just wasn’t very good at stopping the run last year, allowing far too many big gains on the ground. Things probably won’t be much better this year, as the Utes lost a host of production from their front 7. They still have Leki Fotu, who will anchor the defensive line, but they’ll need a host of players to step up and help him.
This is a Friday night game coming off the game against Arizona, so there’s some huge stylistic differences at play here. There’s a lot to like if you’re UCLA, specifically that the Utes are coming off a game against USC and have to go on the road here, but Utah should be much improved from last year, and last year’s team absolutely trashed UCLA last year. Does Chip Kelly’s arrival mean UCLA won’t get caught with its pants down again? Probably, but Utah is also further along in its program development than UCLA is at the moment, and I think that will prove to be the big difference.
Utah wins 24-20.