The Utes came close, but missed out on passing their first Pac-12 test so far this season against Oregon State. However, now the real games begin as Utah starts its conference slate against UCLA at home Thursday night. Both teams are coming off bye weeks and should be well rested for a game that could set the course of the Utes for the remainder of 2013. Utah, still beeming from a rivalry win over BYU, is clicking on offense and defense as Travis Wilson grows more comfortable with a leadership role and the defensive front seven harrassed Taysom Hill for 4.5 sacks. UCLA, led by arguably the best quarterback in the conference, Brett Hundley, is ranked 12th in the top 25 and looks like a frontrunner to win the Pac-12 south division. Here's a position-by-position look at this week's matchup and which team will have the edge heading into tonight's game:
Travis Wilson has continued to grow before our eyes and has the look of a passer that could lead the Utah program to great heights in the next few seasons. Wilson is a 64 percent passer and has 14 total touchdowns for the Utes this season while producing 1,370 yards of offense. Most importantly, Wilson has shown that he can battle through adversity and keep the Utes in the game in the second half. Despite three second half interceptions against Oregon State, Wilson also scored or contributed to three touchdowns in 13 minutes to send the game to overtime. Wilson also further increased the distance between himself and Taysom Hill in the rivalry game, leading a clinical 79 yard drive at the beginning of the fourth quarter to put the game out of reach for the Cougars.
UCLA sophomore Brett Hundley is not only one of the most talented passers in the conference, but is among the elite quarterbacks in the nation. Hundley has 11 total touchdowns this season, is a 66 percent passer and has produced over 1,000 yards of offense for the Bruins. He was stellar in the second half against Nebraska, leading the Bruins to four straight scoring drives and securing the 41-21 victory. Hundley should have a field day against the Utes secondary.
James "Bubba" Poole continues to distance himself from the backfield committee to become the feature back for the Utes. Despite only finding the end zone once this season, he's become the balance option for Wilson's aerial attack, churning out 304 yards and 5.2 yards per carry this season. Poole has also been a factor in the passing game, catching 15 passes for 120 yards in 2013. The Utes as a whole this season are averaging 219 yards on the ground per game and have scored 11 touchdowns.
Along with Hundley, the focal point of the UCLA rush offense is redshirt junior Jordon James. James has 424 yards on the ground this season and has scored four times, nearly half of the team's total rushing yardage and one-third of its touchdowns. Paul Perkins and Malcolm Jones are complimentary options and UCLA is slowly working Damien Thigpen, who is coming back from an ACL injury, into the rotation. UCLA is fourth in the conference this season in rushing with 853 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Dres Anderson has distanced himself from the rest of the receivers on the Utes roster and continues to build a strong rapport with Wilson. Anderson torched the Cougars' secondary repeatedly and has developed into a receiver that can run the entire route tree in Dennis Erickson's offense, catching short, intermediate and long passes all night in Provo. He had eight receptions total for 141 yards, bringing his season total to 18 catches for 404 yards and three touchdowns. Tight End Jake Murphy was injured against BYU, but is expected to play and has 152 yards and a touchdown this season. The Utes are ranked seventh in the Pac-12 in passing so far this season.
Shaq Evans is the leading pass catcher for the Bruins and has been Hundley's go-to option in 2013. He has 210 yards receiving and three touchdowns and provides a bigger target for Hundley. The underrated option so far this season has been Devin Fuller, who works mostly out of the slot for Hundley. Fuller has 12 catches for 135 yards and a touchdown. Look for Hundley to spread the ball around as 20 players have caught passes for UCLA this season. The Bruins are ranked fourth in the Pac-12 in passing so far this season.
The Utah offensive line held up well against a talented BYU defensive front, surrendering only one sack and keeping Wilson upright to make plays down the field. So far this season, the line has only given up four sacks.
UCLA ranks just behind Utah in the Pac-12, surrendering five sacks to opposing defenses. Both teams have had success in the passing and running game, winning the battle up front for the most part.
Defensive line and linebackers:
The match up of both team's defensive front sevens versus the opposing quarterback will determine the outcome of this game. Utah has been dominant in the defensive trenches so far this season with 15 sacks and 31 tackles for loss, trailing only USC in sack efficiency at the top of the Pac-12. The defensive line had a coming out party against BYU, sacking the elusive Taysom Hill five times and racking up eight tackles for loss. Trevor Reilly, Nate Orchard and Tenny Palepoi continue to be focal points, but junior linebacker Jacoby Hale is beginning to draw some attention, with three tackles for loss and two sacks against the Cougars. The concern is that the Utes defense lost contain on Hill several times, allowing him to rush for almost 100 yards, something that will hurt them even more against a dual threat passer like Hundley.
Converted tight end Anthony Barr is considered one of, if not the best outside linebackers in the nation this season. Barr's statistics haven't shown the impact he's had on the Bruin's defense this season. With only one sack, it's easy to discount him, but he also has five tackles for loss, three forced fumbles and opens up opportunities for his teammates to wreak havoc. Senior defensive end Graham Keenan has three sacks and three tackles for loss, while true freshman linebacker Myles Jack is making a name for himself opposite of Barr.
Utah continues to struggle on the back end of the defense. They managed to keep the Cougar receivers out of the end zone, but still surrendered 260 yards passing to a well-below average passer in Taysom Hill. The Utes rank second to last in the conference in front of only Colorado and are surrendering 288 yards per game to opposing quarterbacks while picking off only one pass. Hundley may be the most talented passer Utah faces this season and the Utes will have their hands full limiting him in the air and on the ground.
UCLA is ranked third in the Pac-12 in pass defense and surrenders only 177 yards through the air per game. However, they also struggle with turnovers, producing only one interception so far this season. Safety Randall Goforth has been solid for the Bruins, knocking down two passes and forcing a fumble of his own.
The x-factor in this game is Hundley. He'll provide a serious challenge for the Utes and is poised to pick apart the team's leaky secondary while breaking off the occasional big gain on the ground. Barr and Keenan will make it difficult for Wilson and the general athleticism of the Bruins will be too much for the Utes. UCLA wins 35-21.