No. 12 UCLA (3-0) at Utah (3-1, 0-1 Pac-12)
Location: Rice-Eccles Stadium, Oct. 3, 7 p.m. PT
TV: Fox Sports 1 (Justin Kutcher, Petros Papadakis, Joel Klatt, Kristina Pink)
Radio: 570 AM (Chris Roberts, Matt Stevens, Wayne Cook)
Last meeting: UCLA beat Utah, 21-14, at the Rose Bowl in a game that required some key defensive stops.
2012 records: Bruins (9-5, 6-3); Utes (5-7, 3-6)
Key storylines: UCLA has had some rough trips to Salt Lake City. In 2011, the Bruins lost 31-6 on a snow-covered field. In 2007, they were shellacked 44-6 by a Utah squad that ended the season with a Holiday Bowl victory. Those are the only two times the Bruins have ever lost to the Utes, who aren’t the BCS contender they were six years ago. That said, Rice-Eccles Stadium remains one of the tougher venues in the conference, and fans should pack in Thursday night for a sellout affair. A road win to open Pac-12 play is crucial if UCLA wants to show that it’s a legitimate Pac-12 contender.
The Utes have struggled since moving to the Pac-12, compiling a 7-12 conference record in a little over two seasons. Utah had reached at least 10 wins in each of its last three years in the Mountain West, including an undefeated that campaign capped by a Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama.
A 51-48 home loss to Oregon State last month didn’t suggest significant improvement, what with 443 passing yards the Utes allowed. Utah’s hopes for an upswing could hinge on the development of sophomore Travis Wilson — the team’s most promising quarterback since Brian Johnson, who is now the co-offensive coordinator. If he turns into a star in the next two seasons, his play would help mask the team’s deficiencies elsewhere.
Wilson is also playing in memory of UCLA receiver Nick Pasquale, who was killed by a car on Sept. 8. The two grew up together in San Clemente and were high school teammates.
Players to watch: Brett Hundley should have a field day dicing up Utah’s secondary. The Utes have surrendered an average of 288.3 passing yards, more per game than any team in the Pac-12 except Colorado. Currently the country’s No. 113 pass defense, the team has Bruin receivers Shaq Evans and Devin Fuller will likely both find themselves in the end zone at some point.
Running back Steve Manfro, currently the Pac-12’s leading kick returner at 28.83 yards per attempt, muffed a punt that led to a Utes touchdown last season. The sophomore has performed well so far into his sophomore campaign on both offense and special teams. Senior Damien Thigpen also returns for the first time since tearing his ACL last November, but is only slated for five or so carries.
Wilson will likely test UCLA’s secondary more than any other quarterback has this fall. The sophomore has benefited from co-offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson’s affinity for big plays, and ranks atop the conference with 9.7 yards per attempt. He’s not at Hundley’s level, but matches up well statistically. The two are within single digits of each other in passing yards per game, attempts per game, completion percentage and quarterback rating. Both have three interceptions, but Wilson has nine touchdown passes to Hundley’s eight.
The Bruins have yet to face a top-100 defense, so Utah’s defensive line will likely pose the biggest challenge yet. All-conference honorable mention Trevor Reilly can play both end and linebacker and leads the team with 6.0 tackles for loss — fourth in the Pac-12. Defensive tackle Tenny Palepoi has a team-high 2.5 sacks.
Notes: A win would mark UCLA’s first 4-0 start since 2005, and their first win over Utah in Salt Lake City since 1974. … Thursday will be the Utes’ sixth annual blackout game, in which fans are encouraged to wear black to match player uniforms. Utah is 4-1 in such games. … 24 former Bruins and 22 former Utes are currently listed on NFL rosters.
Did you know?: Utah wideout Dres Anderson’s father, Flipper, led UCLA in receiving yards in 1986 and 1987. He ranks 10th all-time for the Bruins with 2,023 career yards.