UCLA needs two more wins to clinch the Pac-12 South, but closing out its schedule on the road won’t be easy. Before next week’s regular-season finale against USC, the Bruins must travel to Salt Lake City and upset No. 18 Utah. The team has come back to Earth after a 6-0 start that vaulted them to third place in the AP poll, but is still the type of tough, defensive-minded squad that often spells trouble for UCLA. The Salt Lake Tribune‘s Kyle Goon answered five questions about the Utes.
1. Utah is likely out of the playoff picture after brief stay in the national top five, but it’s still in the midst of its best season since joining the Pac-12. What’s the bar the rest of the way for closing out on what players or fans would consider a “successful” year?
I think fans would really like to go to the Rose Bowl. The Utes have never gone to that game, which — despite its lesser importance in the College Football Playoff structure — is still the Grand Old Lady of the Pac-12. It’s a status symbol that Utah would like to attain, and since it’s in Los Angeles, a lot of people would probably make the trip. Of course this year, it will be the Pac-12 champion that goes, and Utah doesn’t control its own destiny (USC has to lose). I think winning out against UCLA and Colorado would also probably welcomed as a success, as long as Utah finishes first or second in the Pac-12 South.
2. How big of a blow to Utah’s offense is the loss of Devontae Booker? What’s the plan for the Utes moving forward?
It’s a huge blow. Booker is among the top 10 players in all-purpose yards per game (157 ypg), and Utah’s offense accounts for his production a lot to set up play action passing and keep the box stacked. The Utes don’t really have a guy who can replace Booker’s power and vision, as well as his receiving production. The Utes will turn to Joe Williams, who showed some promise last week and is probably faster than Booker. He’s a junior college back who was extremely productive before coming to Utah. They also have Bubba Poole, who converted to a slot receiver but hasn’t quite found a role there. Those guys are capable backs, but no one can quite knock down a third-and-three conversion like Devontae Booker.
3. In his first five appearances this season, Travis Wilson threw for seven touchdowns and three interceptions. In his last four, he’s thrown for four scores against six picks. Is this a slump, or regression to the mean?
It’s hard to say exactly, though his teammates will tell you it’s not Wilson who is solely to blame. Utah hasn’t had consistent receiving production all year, and that was a huge question mark entering the season. The best receiver has been Britain Covey, who is a pocket-sized freshman. So Travis isn’t working with amazing weapons, which we knew was the case. I think maybe the more disconcerting thing for him passing-wise is that he still seems to struggle with progressions: If his first option isn’t there, he seems to either check down or struggle to buy time for himself to look for someone else. Personally, I think one of his best skills is the ability to run read-option, which has seemingly helped Utah open up a lot of things when they chose to run it. I would look for some of that on Saturday to soften up the Bruins secondary.
4. Kyle Whittingham has had eight different offensive coordinators. What’s the verdict on the new partnership of Jim Harding and Aaron Roderick?
I would say incomplete. You can’t call the 11th-best passing offense and the 10-best total offense in the Pac-12 a stunning success. But as I mentioned before, Utah had a glaring weakness at receiver that got worse with their two best guys graduating last year, and Travis Wilson has — despite what the coaching staff wants to say — some evident limitations. Utah still managed to win some major games, score enough to keep leads late against other teams and be able to utilize one of the best backs in the Pac-12. It would probably be a mistake to try to bring in yet another offensive coordinator to fix things — Whittingham has been there and done that — and I would guess that the more definitive measure of Roderick/Harding would come next season when they have to work in new talent.
5. At Arizona, the Utah defense was without three starters in defensive end Hunter Dimick, defensive tackle Filipo Mokofisi, and cornerback Reggie Porter — leading to its worst performance of the year (6.97 yards per play), and the first game without a sack since the season opener. How crucial is it that the Utes get some or all of them back against UCLA?
We’ve heard that Porter should be back, and Dimick is at least moving back into the depth chart. Both are crucial to Utah’s success, and actually maybe no one more than Porter. If Dimick misses his fourth straight start, Utah feels good about having former UCLA end Kylie Fitts on the edge. He’s been able to use his length well to generate hurries and deflections at the line. Porter is a solid corner who leads Utah in break-ups, and while he’s not a ball-hawker, he rarely gets beat. Arizona picked on Utah’s cornerbacks a lot in the last game, exposing what was considered a strength of the team as a potential weakness. UCLA has some guys who can do damage down the field in the same way, and Porter’s return would be a huge boost.