Utes look to take another step towards repeat Pac-12 South title when they host surging Bruins
The No. 7 Utes (8-1, 5-1 Pac-12) are alone in first place in the South. Utah has reeled off five consecutive victories while stifling opposing offenses. The Utes lead the nation in rushing defense, allowing just 56.0 yards per game and 2.45 yards per carry. They also lead the Pac-12 in scoring defense (12.2 ppg), total defense (246.3 ypg), passing yards allowed (190.3), first downs defense (122), third-down conversion defense (.0279), and punt return defense (4.25).
Upsetting Utah poses a monumental challenge for the resurgent Bruins (4-5, 4-2), who are just a game back in the division standings. UCLA has not beaten a top-10 opponent on the road since 2010. The Bruins' once-sputtering offense has come to life during a three-game winning streak due largely to an improved rushing attack. UCLA has averaged 217.2 yards per game on the ground over its last six contests and is scoring a league-best 37.0 points per game against Pac-12 opponents.
UCLA leads the all-time series 11-6, but Utah has had the upper hand since joining the Pac-12. The Utes have won three straight over the Bruins, including back-to-back 31-point victories.
UCLA at Utah
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 16 at 8 p.m. ET
Spread: Utah – 21.0
When UCLA Has the Ball
It will be strength against strength when the Bruins take the field on offense. UCLA has bounced back from a 1-5 start by feeding the ball to senior RB Joshua Kelley. It has worked like a charm.
After averaging just 52.0 yards in his first two games, Kelley has averaged 126.2 rushing yards per game over his last six games. He now leads the Pac-12 with 107.6 rushing yards per game. Kelley has been especially reliable during UCLA's three-game winning streak. In those games, he has accumulated 466 yards and seven rushing touchdowns. Getting that level of production against the Utes will be important if the Bruins want to have any success moving the ball. Kelley rushed for 90 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries against Utah a year ago.
Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson will likely have to find a way to get the passing game running smoothly early in the game to loosen things up for Kelley. Thompson-Robinson has made considerable strides as the season has progressed. He completed a season-best 75 percent of his pass attempts against Colorado while throwing for 226 yards and a pair of touchdowns. UCLA has won the last four games in which Thompson-Robinson has completed at least 60 percent of his pass attempts.
Special teams could be an X-factor for the Bruins offense. UCLA ranks second nationally in punt returns, averaging 22.5 yards per return. Kyle Phillips has three returns of 30 yards or longer so far this season.
When Utah Has the Ball
The Utes are so precise and efficient on offense that opponents have a tough time answering after Utah strings together multiple long drives. No other Pac-12 team is better at ball control. The Utes rank second among FBS teams in time of possession (35:11). They also lead the Pac-12 in rushing offense (207.8 ypg) and passing yards per completion (14.04).
Running back Zack Moss is the engine that makes it so easy to chew the clock while piling up yards and points. Moss already holds the school records for career rushing yardage, career rushing touchdowns, career 100-yard rushing games, and career touchdowns scored, and he is 84 yards away from ranking second all-time at Utah in all-purpose yardage. He needs just 172 more rushing yards to have his third straight 1,000-yard season. Both are within reach on Saturday, considering Moss ran for a career-high 211 yards against UCLA last season.
Quarterback Tyler Huntley is closer to 100 percent after having a bye week to help speed his recovery from a knee sprain suffered against Arizona State. Huntley threw for 138 yards and a touchdown on 62 percent passing against the Bruins last season. The safe bet is that he will do much more damage this season. The senior has blossomed under the tutelage of offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig. Huntley has seven 200-yard games so far this season and has completed at least 70 percent of his passes in six straight contests. Nine different Utah receivers have at least 10 catches, led by Demari Simpkins with 22 receptions for 252 yards.
UCLA is closing in on bowl eligibility, a scenario that seemed improbable after a disastrous first half of the season. The Bruins have faced struggling teams like Stanford and Colorado in recent weeks to nab crucial victories. Finding a way to upset Utah on the road is a whole different animal. The Utes are elite on both offense and defense and genuinely look like one of the nation's best teams at this point. Utah has dominated the Bruins in recent seasons and should have no trouble doing it once again.
Prediction: Utah 42, UCLA 17
— 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.