The sledding gets tougher after today
As UCLA comes to town to play
The Utes have a really tough row to hoe
Which promises to be quite a good show
COMMENTARY — It’s true, 3-1 is not a bad start for Utah. But from this point forward the schedule only gets tougher.
Four of Utah’s eight remaining opponents are currently ranked in the Top 25. Oregon is ranked 2nd, Stanford 5th, UCLA 12th and Arizona State 22nd. Quite frankly, it is going to be difficult for Utah to beat any one of them. Difficult … but not impossible. It will help that three of the four games are in Salt Lake City, with Utah going on the road to play Oregon.
None of the other four games against Arizona, USC, Washington State and Colorado are necessarily gimmes for Utah either.
This week, Utah hosts UCLA on Thursday night for the Utes’ sixth-annual blackout game. Here’s hoping that the black worn by fans does not become symbolic of mourners at a funeral, but rather is something more akin to the fashionable black predominantly worn by people enjoying the shows at the Sundance Film Festival.
We are now far enough into the season to have a pretty good picture of Utah’s team as a whole, particularly in comparison to UCLA.
The Utah offense has proven that it can score points, ranking fourth in the Pac-12 with 42 points per game. While that average has been bolstered significantly by a 70-point performance over Weber State, the Utes did put up 48 points against a very tough Oregon State team in Utah’s Pac-12 opener. Utah also ranks fifth in the Pac-12 in total offense, averaging 504.8 yards per game.
However, UCLA’s offense is putting up even more impressive numbers, ranking second in the Pac-12 in scoring (52.7 ppg), and leads the Pac-12 in total offense with 614.3 yards per contest.
Utah’s defense, historically the anchor of the team, is in the bottom half of the Pac-12, ranking eighth in scoring defense (giving up 24.2 ppg), and 11th in total defense (giving up 406.5 ypg). In comparison, UCLA is No. 4 in scoring defense (18.0 papg), and sixth in total defense (339 yapg).
Obviously, on paper the match-up certainly favors the Bruins. However, there may be a few wildcards to consider.
First of all, confidence is a big thing and the Utes are riding high.
“It’s a big challenge for us, but we’ll be ready,” said coach Kyle Whittingham, whose Utes are coming off a bye week. “There’s an air of confidence about the team.”
Confidence born from beating a rival, then taking a crucial bye to prepare for UCLA. Confidence knowing Whittingham always gets his teams ready to play with the added prep time. The Utes are 6-2 under Whittingham after a bye.
Another factor to consider is special teams. The kicking game is one of Utah’s strengths. First-year placekicker Andy Phillips is perfect in both field goals (7 for 7) and PAT’s (21 of 21) and was successful with his only onside kick. Punter Tom Hackett leads the Pac-12 in punts inside the 20 (9) and punts of 50+ yards (6). Utah is also third in the Pac-12 in punt returns.
While the Utes have given up a lot of yards and points, they still rank second in the Pac-12 in sacks.
Plus, Travis Wilson is getting noticeably better each week. Watching the young quarterback grow and develop in directing Utah’s offense reminds me somewhat of watching a young Andre Miller grow and develop as the point guard leading the Runnin’ Utes. As Utah’s basketball team consistently got better and better over the course of Andre Miller’s career, I expect Utah’s football team to get consistently better over the course of Wilson’s career. Let’s be honest, the Utes have struggled at the QB position ever since it joined the Pac-12, but Utah is finally getting consistently good production from that position.
Another promising development is that Dres Anderson has emerged as the go-to receiver on Utah’s squad. Anderson has had three straight 100-yard games, including a career-high 141 yards against BYU. Anderson should have extra motivation to prove himself again this week as his father, Flipper Anderson, was a standout receiver for UCLA in the late 1980s and currently ranks 10th all-time receiving yards at UCLA.
So what does all of this mean? Call me naïve, but I still think Utah has a fighter’s chance against UCLA this week (even Vegas oddsmakers only favor UCLA by less than a touchdown).
The combination of Utah’s kicking game and the pressure that the Utes defense can put on the quarterback may assist in winning the field position battle. A few key stops by the defense may make a significant impact on UCLA’s scoring opportunities.
On the other side of the ball, Utah’s offense must continue to be productive, utilizing an evenly-balanced rushing and passing attack. Most importantly, the Utes absolutely cannot turn the ball over (particularly because Utah’s defense has not produced very many takeaways itself). A minus game in the turnover category could be disastrous.
Wilson started his first game against UCLA last year as a true freshman in a 21-14 loss in Los Angeles. He has gotten significantly better since then, and will have a chance on Thursday to prove how far he has come.
We are about to find out how much progress this scrappy Utah team has made, and how they measure up against not only one of the top teams in the Pac-12, but one of the top teams in the nation. I honestly think almost anything is possible — a blowout loss, a closely contested loss, or perhaps a narrow victory (even I seriously doubt that the Utes are capable of a blowout win against UCLA).
There’s no quit in the Utah team. Here’s hoping they have enough moxie to get past UCLA.
Dwayne Vance is a sports columnist. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.
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