Utes football: Utah preparing to battle UCLA Bruins Thursday night
Tom Smart, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — After giving the Utes a couple of days off, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said it was good to get back on the field last Thursday. He said the team showed a lot of energy, had their legs back, and got off to a good start when it came to preparing for this week’s game against 12th-ranked UCLA.
The initial bye week practice, Whittingham explained, featured a lot of install and game planning. He said the Bruins are a really good football team — athletic, well-coached and tearing it up on offense.
“They’re doing a great job,” Whittingham said. “They’re solid all across the board.”
Led by sophomore quarterback Brett Hundley, UCLA (3-0) is averaging 52.7 points and 614.3 yards of total offense per game — ranking third and fourth in the nation, respectively, in each category — following victories over Nevada (58-20), Nebraska (41-21) and New Mexico State (59-13).
Wide receivers Shaquelle Evans and Devin Fuller have a combined 25 catches and running back Jordan James has already amassed 424 yards.
“I think this will be another challenge just like Oregon State because they spread the ball out a lot,” said Utah strong safety Michael Walker. “I think us, as DBs, are going to take this game personal to step up and play good like we did in the BYU game.”
Unlike Taysom Hill of the Cougars, though, the Utes will be facing more of a dual-threat quarterback in Hundley. He enters the game with 848 yards passing (completing 61 of 92 throws with eight touchdowns and three interceptions) and 157 yards rushing.
Whittingham considers Hundley more of a hybrid between Utah State’s Chuckie Keeton and Oregon State’s Sean Mannion.
“He throws the ball very efficiently and he moves around pretty darn good — where Mannion is a pure pocket guy and Chuckie is a guy who really likes to get out and go with the run aspect,” Whittingham said. “Hundley can do both and he’s done both very well this year so far.”
UCLA’s offense is pretty balanced. The Bruins are 12th in the nation with 330 yards passing per game and 13th in rushing at 284.3.
The big test, however, will come against the Utes' secondary. Utah’s pass defense is giving up more than 288 yards per game, ranking 11th in the Pac-12.
Although Whittingham said they’ve taken strides forward, he acknowledged UCLA will present “a big challenge for them.”
On the flip side, Utah quarterback Travis Wilson and the offense faces a UCLA defense that is ranked fifth in the conference against the pass — allowing 177 yards per game. Linebackers Eric Kendricks (26 tackles) and Anthony Barr (18 tackles, three forced fumbles) and defensive end Keenan Graham (three sacks) are players of note.
“They’re definitely a really good defense. They have some great coaches over there. They have a good scheme,” Wilson said. “On offense, we’ve just got to make sure we come prepared and make sure we do better on our third downs than we did from last game.”
The Utes converted on just 1 of 14 third-down situations in their 20-13 win at BYU on Sept. 21. It’s an obvious area of emphasis for improvement.
“We just need to make sure we do our part on offense and make sure we correct everything from last game,” Wilson said.
There’s a lot riding on it for Utah. After opening their first two Pac-12 seasons with four straight conference losses, the Utes are already off to an 0-1 start with the 51-48 overtime loss to Oregon State on Sept. 14.
“A loss in our first conference game is not the way we wanted to start, so we’ve just got to make sure that we really take this game seriously and really come out with our A game,” Wilson said.
No. 12 UCLA (3-0, 0-0) at Utah (3-1, 0-1)
Thursday, 8 p.m.
TV: FOX Sports 1
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