Utah has dominated UCLA in recent seasons. Can the Utes keep it going when they face the Bruins in a critical Pac-12 South game on Saturday?
After opening conference play with three straight victories, Utah (4-3, 3-1 Pac-12) fell apart in the second half against Oregon State and left with a 42-34 loss to the Beavers. The Utes were gashed for 260 rushing yards — the most Utah has surrendered on the ground to an opponent since giving up 347 rushing yards to Oregon in 2017. The Utes also struggled with special teams play. A blocked punt in the third quarter led to Oregon State's first go-ahead touchdown and ultimately swung momentum in the Beavers' favor for good.
UCLA (5-3, 3-2) has no margin for error left if it wants to claim a divisional title. The Bruins already lost to Arizona State and cannot afford to lose another critical tiebreaker to Utah. UCLA fell 34-31 to Oregon after coming up short during a fourth-quarter rally. The Bruins were held to a season-low 110 rushing yards against the Ducks. UCLA has rushed for at least 200 yards in all five of its victories this season and has failed to reach that mark in three losses.
UCLA leads the series with Utah 11-7. The Utes have had the upper hand lately, winning four straight in the series. Their most recent victory was a 49-3 rout of the Bruins in 2019.
UCLA at Utah
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 30 at 10 p.m. ET
Spread: Utah -6.5
When UCLA Has the Ball
Stopping Zach Charbonnet will not be a simple or easy task for Utah. Charbonnet is tied for first in the Pac-12 with five 100-yard rushing games this season. He averages 91.5 rushing yards per game. The Bruins are undefeated this season when Charbonnet runs for at least 100 yards and have lost all three games where he has failed to reach that mark. It's not a stretch to say that his production in the running game is a major catalyst for UCLA's success.
Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson remains questionable for Saturday after injuring his arm against Oregon. He practiced with the Bruins earlier in the week but had limited reps. Ethan Garbers will likely get the call to start if he isn't able to go.
Thompson-Robinson did not fare well against Utah when he faced the Utes two years ago. He threw for 219 yards in that game but also tossed a pair of interceptions and fumbled twice. It helped Utah run off 49 unanswered points over four quarters.
UCLA has been at its best this season, ironically when Thompson-Robinson does not have to do much in the passing game. He has four 200-yard passing games this season. The Bruins have won just one of those. On the other hand, UCLA has won all four games where he's been held under that mark.
When Utah Has the Ball
Cameron Rising continues to grow as a dynamic playmaker at quarterback. Rising tallied a season-high 340 total yards against Oregon State. It marked his third straight game throwing for at least 200 yards. Rising's ability to tuck and run has proved useful in getting Utah out of tight spots on third-and-long situations. The sophomore quarterback is doing a good job spreading the ball around to the receivers, but he's excelled the most at getting tight ends involved in the passing game.
Utah's top three tight ends — Brant Kuithe, Dalton Kincaid, and Cole Fotheringham — have been an integral part of the Ute offense during Pac-12 play. The trio has combined for 33 receptions, 354 yards, and four touchdowns over the last four games. Kincaid leads the Utes in receiving yards (287) while Kuithe ranks second in total receptions (26) and third in yards (241).
Tavion Thomas made his first start in the backfield against Oregon State and churned out 74 yards on 21 carries before injuring his knee late in the game. Thomas said he is healthy and ready to play on Saturday. If he is limited in any fashion, the Utes can lean on TJ Pledger or Micah Bernard to spell Thomas. All three players have had at least one 100-yard rushing game this season.
Utah has outscored UCLA 190-75 in the last four games between the Pac-12 South foes. The problem for the Bruins is that while their offense has taken a few steps forward this season, the Utes have done the same on that side of the ball. UCLA's running game will present problems for Utah's porous defense. Still, the Bruins have struggled to defend dynamic quarterbacks all season, and the Utes have one of the better signal-callers in the Pac-12. Expect lots of points, a close finish, and a result that favors Utah in the end.
Prediction: Utah 35, UCLA 31
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– Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sports journalist based in Utah. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.