Both Utah and UCLA's Pac-12 championship dreams took a hit after losses last weekend for both squads knocked them down a peg, making Saturday's matchup essentially an elimination game in the Pac-12 South. The Utes hold a one-game advantage over their opponent, but the Bruins can creep back into the conversation with a big road win at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Will the Utes keep pace with USC atop the division? Or will UCLA make a statement and show the Trojans that it isn't going anywhere?
To prepare for the big showdown, the Deseret News caught up with Jack Wang, UCLA football beat writer for the Los Angeles Daily News, to get the inside scoop.
DN: Obviously, this matchup has lost some of the luster it had at the beginning of the season. How do the Bruins view Utah as a team, and are they still motivated to play in this one?
JW: A few players have called this the biggest game of the season, and that's essentially what it boils down to. UCLA is lucky enough to still be in the Pac-12 South even with three conference losses, but needs to beat both Utah and USC to clinch the division. There's little chance of the Bruins overlooking this one. The Utes bested them by two points a year ago at the Rose Bowl, and represent the type of physical team that they've usually struggled against under Jim Mora. The team has also fared better in the underdog role than it has in the spotlight; I think the fact that few people expect them to win in Salt Lake City will be a motivating factor.
DN: Much has been made of freshman quarterback Josh Rosen, but in addition, who else should the Utah defense really key in on the UCLA offense come Saturday?
JW: Paul Perkins' numbers have dipped from last season, due in part to a knee injury as well as the fact that UCLA doesn't lean as heavily on him as many other teams do their tailbacks. (He's only topped 18 carries four times this season, and is one of just seven 1,000-yard rushers in the country with no more than 180 total carries.) Utah has a good run defense, but Perkins can generally be counted on to maximize the potential of every play.
As far as receivers go, Rosen has really locked in on Jordan Payton and Thomas Duarte. Payton is well-rounded and dependable, and only needs six more catches to tie UCLA's all-time receptions record. Duarte is a bigger inside receiver — almost a hybrid tight end — who is in the middle of a breakout year. Rosen loves throwing to him over the middle, and has found him in the end zone eight times this season.
DN: On the other side, how will this Bruin defense prepare to stop a bruising running back like Devontae Booker? Are the Bruins worried about Travis Wilson's arm and the pass game at all?
JW: UCLA's linebackers have not played particularly well as a unit since losing Myles Jack back in September. Isaako Savaiinaea did a decent job after moving into the starting lineup, but has missed three games with a sprained ankle. He returned to practice this week, however, and his return should help. Mostly, however, the Bruins have been very reliant on star nose tackle Kenny Clark, a potential first-round draft pick who has been playing lights out for the past several weeks.
The Bruins' run defense has been a sore spot most of the season, so I think the team should have more concern about Wilson's legs rather than his arm.
DN: Though last week was rough for the unit, Utah's special teams typically has an impact on every game. Can UCLA keep this group from converting any big plays?
JW: The Bruins have only allowed two punt returns all season, and I wouldn't expect Utah to break the trend. One problem is that UCLA's punting has alternated between abysmal and mediocre, which should give the Utes good starting field position without needing to return punts. Kickoff coverage has been a struggle too. Ka'imi Fairbairn has a big leg, and has landed touchbacks on 51 touchbacks on 71 kickoffs. When he doesn't put the ball in the end zone, however, opponents are averaging 25.8 yards per return — the eighth-highest number in the FBS.
DN: What do the Bruins have to do in order to get a win on Saturday? Prediction?
JW: Convert in the red zone. The Bruins have been very efficient for the most part, but fall into spells where they can't sustain drives. And when they do, they too often can't finish them. UCLA has only scored touchdowns on 59.2 percent of its red-zone trips. The defense isn't great, but it can do enough to win a game if its offense is running effectively.
As for a prediction, it's hard to say. I'm inclined to pick Utah given its home field advantage, but I wouldn't be shocked if UCLA leaves Rice-Eccles with the win either. Whichever way it goes, I think the final margin will be within a touchdown.