Utes look to stay in first place in the Pac-12 South when they host the skidding Bears on Saturday night
Utah's defense has risen to elite levels beyond what the Utes have previously achieved. Now California faces the daunting task of trying to carve out offense against it when the Bears visit Utah on Saturday.
The No. 12 Utes (6-1, 3-1) lead the Pac-12 and rank among the top 10 FBS teams in several defensive categories. Utah turned in one of its finest defensive performances to date in a 21-3 victory over then-No. 17 Arizona State. The Utes held the Sun Devils to just 136 total yards – including a meager 25 passing yards. Utah has allowed just 10 points over its last 10 quarters of football and 23 total points during the team's three-game winning streak.
That isn't good news for the Bears (4-3, 1-3) who come to Salt Lake City mired in a three-game losing streak. California has struggled to generate yards and points with any degree of consistency. The Bears rank dead last in the Pac-12 in scoring offense (20.0 ppg) and total offense (324.0 ypg). They piled up just 282 total yards in a 21-17 loss to Oregon State and allowed nine sacks.
California holds a slim 6-5 lead in the series with Utah. The Bears beat the Utes 28-23 in the most recent game between the two teams in 2016. Utah last dropped a home game to California in1963.
California at Utah
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 26 at 10 p.m. ET
Spread: Utah -21.5
When California Has the Ball
The Bears were never that strong on offense with Chase Garbers at quarterback. Since Garbers got injured against Arizona State, California has fallen off a cliff offensively. Now the Bears are potentially down to their third-string quarterback with Devon Modster listed as week-to-week, after exiting with an injury in the fourth quarter against Oregon State.
Spencer Brasch led the final two drives in the loss to the Beavers and now could make his first career start on the road against the Utes. Brasch threw for 24 yards, completing just 2-of-6 passes, against Oregon State. He was also sacked twice. Asking the freshman to spark an offensive revival while facing the Pac-12's top defense is a mammoth task. California has had only two games this season where it has finished with more than 200 passing yards.
Brasch isn't likely to get much help on the ground. The Bears' running attack has sputtered over the last four games. They have averaged 84.5 rushing yards per game over the last four games. That's not a promising trend going up against Utah's fearsome rush defense. The Utes rank second in the FBS, allowing just 61.1 yards on the ground per game. Christopher Brown Jr. and Marcel Dancy averaged just 2.3 yards per carry between them against Oregon State. The two backs have combined for just 184 rushing yards over the last three games.
When Utah Has the Ball
As nasty as Utah's defense has been toward opponents over the last three weeks, the Utes have proven to be tough to handle on the other side of the ball. Utah did suffer four turnovers against Arizona State. But when the Utes held onto the ball, they generally moved down the field at will against the Sun Devils.
Tyler Huntley and Zack Moss are the one-two punch keying this efficient and effective offense. With this dynamic duo at the controls, Utah leads the Pac-12 in rushing offense (217.7 ypg), and also ranks in the top 10 nationally in quarterback completion percentage (.730) and pass efficiency (173.59). The Utes are second among Pac-12 teams in passing yards per completion (13.63 ypc).
Moss became the school's all-time leading rusher after piling up 99 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries against Arizona State. He has accumulated 613 yards in six games and is averaging 6.6 yards per carry. His 3,264 career rushing yards rank sixth among active FBS players.
Huntley, who is a game-time decision against California, threw for 171 yards in three quarters against Arizona State before leaving the game with an ankle injury. Jason Shelley or Drew Lisk could start on Saturday if Huntley can't go. When fully healthy, Huntley has been electric this season. He has tallied 1,564 yards and nine touchdowns through seven games. Huntley leads all Pac-12 quarterbacks in completion percentage (.740) and pass efficiency (180.1). He attempted 149 straight passes without throwing an interception before the streak finally ended against the Sun Devils.
This could be a nightmare for California that lasts for four quarters. The Bears haven't had a good track record for getting offensive production up to this point. Utah has redefined stingy defense this season and may not break much of a sweat shutting them down. The Utes likely won't score a ton of points against a quality California defense, but they won't need many. Utah will win comfortably to close out a highly successful October.
Prediction: Utah 24, California 3
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.