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Facing the fifth-place team in the Pac-12 South Division, No. 19 Utah (6-1, 3-1) isn't about to get ready for an easy one in Los Angeles.
The Utes' clashes with UCLA have rarely been easy.
"UCLA has a lot of speed, a lot of athleticism," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said Monday. "Our guys can't be fooled by their record, because they're a good football team and have a lot of good players."
Utah isn't likely to be looking ahead: The series with UCLA has been one of the most hard-fought South Division rivalries of the past few years, nearly always with title game implications.
The matchups have been close recently: The last five games have been won by eight points or less. The Utes won the last game at the Rose Bowl, 30-28, in 2014, but the Bruins got them back last November at Rice-Eccles Stadium, 17-9. The loss effectively shut out Utah from playing in the 2015 Pac-12 title game.
The team voted to win the South in the preseason has fallen on hard times in the worst start under coach Jim Mora, most recently losing to Washington State in Pullman and falling to 1-3 in conference play. UCLA still has an NFL-caliber quarterback in Josh Rosen, an offense stocked with five- and four-star recruits, and a defense that holds opponents to under 350 yards per game.
If Utah wins in Pasadena, it will remain atop the Pac-12 South and bury the Bruins in the race for good. But a loss could drop the Utes back into the thick of things with teams like USC, Arizona State and the Bruins themselves.
"We feel like we're in pretty good shape right now," Whittingham said. "But a tough stretch of games [is] coming up."
UCLA's big questions hinge on offense: Rosen, touted as one of the top passers in the country, missed the Washington State game last week after looking shaky in warmups. The SoCal native, whom Whittingham called "an NFL quarterback," was replaced by senior Mike Fafaul, who had 258 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. The run game has been weak in support: The Bruins had only 43 yards on the ground against Wazzu.
But UCLA's passing defense is top-caliber. The Bruins are ranked No. 7 in pass efficiency defense (98.46) and have picked off eight passes this year. Opponents average fewer than 200 yards per game.
It just so happens Utah is coming off its worst passing game of the year, with quarterback Troy Williams going 4 for 13 for 42 yards against Oregon State. Wet and windy weather played a role, but Whittingham acknowledged that the coaches probably shouldn't have gone away from the pass in the second half.
In his first visit this season back to his hometown (an estimated 100 or more of his family and friends will attend), Williams said he wasn't concerned about "bouncing back" statistically.
"I'm not really too much of a stats guy," Williams said. "It's not like I'm going out there and need to throw this many yards this game or I'm going to look bad or that. All I care about is winning, man. I want to put my team in the best position to win."
This week also finds Utah banged up even more than it has been in the last few weeks.
Safety Marcus Williams and linebacker Sunia Tauteoli are off the depth chart after being injured against Oregon State. While their injuries are not believed to be season-ending, the move seems to cast doubt on their availability this weekend.
Whittingham looked weary as he said "there's never been a year like this" when it comes to injuries. The Utes also played without running back Zach Moss and tight end Harrison Handley last week, while Tim Patrick played sparingly against Oregon State. It's unclear if any of them will be able to play this week.
"It sucks to see our guy go down, he's one of our starting linebackers," linebacker Cody Barton said of Tauteoli. "But it's just next man up."
No. 19 Utah at UCLA
P Saturday, 2 p.m.
TV • Ch. 13