No. 23 Utah has positioned itself well for a run to the program's first-ever Pac-12 Championship Game appearance. By virtue of beating USC in a more-lopsided-than-it-looks 41-28 decision last week, and with head-to-head matchups against much of the South division still to come, Utah has a direct path to Santa Clara.
First in the Utes' way is a UCLA team riding a two-game and suddenly, somehow, alive for the divisional title. The Bruins scored their first home win under Chip Kelly last week, surviving a 31-30 contest against Arizona. UCLA now has back-to-back wins and sits tied in the loss column with Colorado, USC, and — yes — Utah.
Utah at UCLA
Kickoff: Friday, Oct. 26 at 10:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Utah -10
Three Things to Watch
1. Utah's talented rotation of pass catchers
Offensive coordinator Troy Taylor arrived at Utah from Eastern Washington, which boasted one of the most prolific passing attacks in the Football Championship Subdivision, year in and year out. The most noteworthy receiver to come out of Eastern Washington is current Los Angeles Ram Cooper Kupp, but the Eagles flourished with deep and diverse corps of pass catchers that transcended a single player.
Taylor's approach is now taking shape at Utah, particularly in the past three weeks. Quarterback Tyler Huntley has elevated his play to a new level, thanks in part to the variety of options he has to target. Britain Covey is Utah's No. 1 receiver, but the UCLA defense has much more facing it. Demari Simpkins, Samson Nacua and Jaylen Dixon have all contributed this season, and Solomon Enis got into the act last week with a 27-yard touchdown catch.
2. UCLA QB question?
Dorian Thompson-Robinson came out of last week's game due to injury, but Michigan transfer Wilton Speight performed well in his first appearance since Week 1. Thompson-Robinson's status for Friday night is somewhat uncertain; Chip Kelly told reporters on Tuesday he'd be able to play, but Speight has taken first-team practice reps for three days leading up to game day.
Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said in his weekly press conference that both Speight and Thompson-Robinson bring unique abilities, and that the Utes "will prepare for both of them."
No matter if it's the traditional pocket passer Speight, or the more versatile Thompson-Robinson, the Utah defense must be prepared to stop the run. Whittingham noted that, "a Chip Kelly offense is traditionally a run-first offense." And UCLA's moving in that direction, too, behind running back Joshua Kelley.
3. Turnover battle
Turnovers can swing the direction of a game in an instant. Rice-Eccles Stadium's initial electricity last week waned when USC forced a fumble and returned it for a touchdown to open a 14-0 lead. But the Utes began to retake control in part on a Chase Hansen interception deep in Trojans territory, setting up a quick and easy Utah touchdown.
UCLA has been particularly reliant on turnover-creation during the last two weeks, building a plus-seven advantage in the wins over Cal and Arizona. Takeaways have come from interceptions — like the two Elijah Gates and Quinten Lake made last week, the first of their respective Bruins careers — and via fumbles, like the strip Darnay Holmes made to prevent an Arizona touchdown.
UCLA comes into Friday's game tied with Colorado for the Pac-12 lead in turnover margin (+6). In contrast, Utah's on the negative side of the season at minus-two. In a matchup like Friday's, some turnover success is critical for a big underdog to mount the upset. If Keisean Lucier-South can continue his recent havoc-wreaking, getting into the backfield to disrupt Huntley, the Bruins could have some chances for critical takeaways.
Despite the rocky start, UCLA's made noticeable strides in all three phases — and it's important to note that it's three, because Utah comes into the Rose Bowl with a reputation for having the Pac-12's best special teams. An interesting subplot to follow is the punting of Stefan Flintoft for UCLA and Mitch Wishnowsky for Utah, and how they aid their teams with a few flips of the field.
Punting aside, UCLA's shown improvement — but special teams may be the only area in which the Bruins stack up with the Utes. The sudden resurgence of the Utah offense appears to be no aberration, with the Utes ripping off 40-plus points in three consecutive games. The defense is as dangerous as ever, with Chase Hansen, Bradlee Anae and Jaylon Johnson all making plays.
Utah may not impose its will out of the gate; the trajectory of most of UCLA's five losses has been the Bruins hanging tough for the first half before running out of gas. The Utes should be able to pull away if it's close to move one step closer to the Pac-12 Championship Game.