No one on UCLA’s side has underplayed the importance of its next game, a Saturday trip to Salt Lake City with effects that will ripple past state borders.
“This is it right here,” said Kenny Clark, the Bruins’ star nose tackle. “This is it for us. This is it for them.”
This is the game that could end Pac-12 South hopes for UCLA (7-3, 4-3) or Utah (8-2, 5-2), the game that could have one group of fans jumping into the air and the other shielding its eyes. Both are in position to potentially finish at the top of the division by winning out — though the No. 18 Utes also need USC to lose. Both could still fall to a forgettable bowl game.
Here’s what to watch when the Bruins kick off at 12:30 p.m. at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
When UCLA has the ball
Josh Rosen has played like a top-level quarterback for the past several weeks. Can he keep it up against one of the best defenses he’s seen?
The true freshman has thrown 188 passes without an interception, and needs only 12 more to break UCLA’s record for consecutive attempts without a pick. However, Utah’s defense leads the Pac-12 with 16 picks. No team from a Power Five conference has more.
The Utes have a solid lineup across their entire defense, but the most impressive part is the line. Starting defensive end Hunter Dimick has been limited by injuries this season, but Kylie Fitts — who played sparingly at UCLA in 2013 before transferring out the following August — has filled in nicely, notching 4.5 sacks and six pass breakups in eight starts. On the other side of the line is senior Jason Fanaika, who is second on the team with 7.5 tackles for loss.
Linebacker Gionni Paul makes his presence felt all over the field. The former Miami transfer leads his team with 86 tackles, including 12 for loss, and is tied for second with three interceptions and three forced fumbles.
Utah has been particularly adept at stopping the run, giving up a conference-low eight touchdowns on the ground. In October to early November, it held four consecutive opponents to 3.6 yards per carry or lower. Still, Paul Perkins is a difficult back to contain. The Bruins’ redshirt junior suffered a knee injury last month, but he’s still averaging 5.96 yards per carry in his past three games. He’s averaging only 18 carries a game after leading the conference in rushing last year, so he should have more than enough left in the tank down the stretch.
When Utah has the ball
Devontae Booker’s role in the Utah offense is difficult to overstate. After turning down a chance to enter the 2015 NFL Draft, the star tailback has done everything the Utes have asked of him — which makes his injury all the more devastating.
Booker underwent surgery for a torn meniscus Thursday, and will be sidelined for at least the rest of the regular season. He had shouldered an immense load before his knee gave out, toting an FBS-high 268 carries. The 5-foot-10, 212-pound senior cleared 30 carries in five games this season. Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey is the only other back in the conference to clear that threshold, and he’s done it only twice.
Without Booker, Utah loses a backfield workhorse who laid the foundation for its run-first scheme.
“He’s a very patient back,” UCLA defensive coordinator Tom Bradley said before the news of Booker’s surgery. “He’s not a guy that’s looking for the big gain all the time. … He understands that if he stays in it long enough, he’s going to get the big one.”
Now the Bruins will need to plan for Joe Williams, who embodies an entirely different running style. Like Booker, Williams is a junior-college transfer, one who signed with the Utes in February out of ASA College in Brooklyn. Unlike Booker, he’s more speed than power. The former track star ran the 100-meter dash in 10.47 seconds last year, and was a second-team NJCAA All-American. How will he fare in his first career start at Utah? It’s hard to say. Williams has only 19 carries for 78 yards this season.
UCLA also must account for Travis Wilson. The senior has flaws as a passer — he’s thrown 12 touchdowns against nine picks — but is second on the team with 368 rushing yards and six scoring runs. Against a Bruin defense whose struggles against running quarterbacks are well known, he should be able to do some damage with his legs.
Edge: UCLA, slightly
On special teams
Ka’imi Fairbairn is on track to finish as the best kicker in the conference, and maybe even in all of college football. However, the rest of UCLA’s special teams unit has not been nearly as successful.
Punter Matt Mengel doesn’t seem to be able to string together good performances on a consistent basis, while receiver Kenny Walker somehow managed a 0-yard punt last weekend. Kickoff coverage has also been dreadful when Fairbairn doesn’t land a touchback, with opponents averaging 25.8 yards per return. Ishmael Adams has also displayed questionable decision-making in terms of when to fair catch and when to let the ball bounce out into the end zone. Look for Devin Fuller to potentially get work as a returner again now that his ankle seems to be healed.
Utah is solid across special teams, with reigning Ray Guy Award winner Tom Hackett leading the way at punter. Senior kicker Andy Phillips has been a Lou Groza Award semifinalist for four straight seasons. Receiver Britain Covey has 393 yards on kick and punt returns, and scored a touchdown on the latter. Cornerback Cory Butler-Byrd — who also has a 54-yard touchdown catch this season — has returned six kicks for 179 yards and a score.
Prediction: UCLA 33, Utah 31. Recent games between the two teams have been close, but unless Joe Williams is better than anyone expects, it’s hard to imagine the Utes’ offense being able to keep up without Devontae Booker.