Five thoughts after UCLA’s win over Utah

In case you missed anything from UCLA’s 17-9 win at Utah, here’s our coverage from yesterday in Salt Lake City.

» The Bruins’ defense made key adjustments, and shut a team out of the end zone for the third time this season.
» Jordan Payton set a new UCLA record with his 194th career catch. He also became only the eighth Bruin to record 1,000 receiving yards in a season, and the first since Nelson Rosario in 2011.
» VIDEOS: Jim Mora, Tom Bradley, Josh Rosen / Paul Perkins, Deon Hollins, Jordan Payton, Takkarist McKinley, Jayon Brown

A few more thoughts on UCLA, and the road ahead …

1. The Bruins are in good position to win the Pac-12 South. Jim Mora has won three straight games against USC, taking the last two by more than two touchdowns. If a fourth is what stands between UCLA and a spot in the Pac-12 Championship, it’s very difficult to imagine this team letting up. As much as he’s struggled against Stanford, Mora has consistently prepared to against both USC and Arizona, going 7-0 with an average margin of almost 21 points. That’s not just happenstance.

While the Trojans have opened as 3.5-point favorites, that only feeds into UCLA’s preference for the underdog role. Even Josh Rosen has caught onto this.

“I hope we don’t get ranked after this game,” he said Saturday. “Because for some reason, we don’t like playing ahead. We like when people doubt us.”

That said, with the division at stake, this could easily go down to the wire.

2. The offensive line could have issues. Left tackle Conor McDermott injured his right knee on Saturday, and wasn’t able to walk off the field unassisted. Mora wouldn’t say much about his status, but coming back from something like that in one week seems unlikely.

That will have a trickle effect. Through most of the season, the line benefited from improved chemistry — the product of experience as individuals and as a unit. That won’t be the same without McDermott. UCLA had already started moving linemen around, trying Caleb Benenoch at both right guard and right tackle, moving offensive guard Kenny Lacy in and out of the lineup, and even putting in true freshman Fred Ulu-Perry. Mora also said Saturday that Alex Redmond suffered an injury, though he didn’t appear to be getting treatment on the sideline. The junior hurt his hand last month.

3. Josh Rosen doesn’t have the best numbers — his 136.1 passer rating is seventh in the Pac-12 — but he’s playing as well as anyone could possibly hoped entering this season. Much has been made of his pocket presence at this point, but looking back on the season, I think he’s likely made the offensive line look better than it actually is. Put a different guy behind center, and UCLA’s allowed sacks could be closer to 20 rather than a league-low 11.

Even receiver Jordan Payton said that Rosen has exceeded his preseason expectations.

“I don’t think anyone would ever think that a freshman could do the things that he’s doing,” Payton said. “But, as I’m around him more, and I see the way he prepares and how he studies — he’s fanatical about it. He’s constant. He’s on his phone, and you think he’s just texting, and he’s watching film.”

4. UCLA’s secondary depth is paying off, making for what has been a better-than-expected position group after the loss of senior Fabian Moreau. Cornerback Johnny Johnson had been a pleasant surprise before he suffered muscle spasms in his neck against Washington State. His comeback after losing his first two years to shoulder surgeries reminds me a little bit of Anthony Jefferson’s career arc. Jefferson was another former four-star recruit who eventually overcome early health setbacks to become an all-conference defensive back in 2013 and 2014.

Johnson was dressed and warming up at Utah, so he should have a good chance to return against USC. In his place, true freshman Nate Meadors had a decent game, which is particularly impressive given that he arrived at UCLA as a safety.

5. Ka’imi Fairbairn might have cost himself the Lou Groza Award, even as he became the first Bruin to record four straight 100-point campaigns. If the season had ended before Saturday, the UCLA senior likely would have been named the top kicker in college football. He had hit the longest field goal attempt in the country, connecting from 60 yards out against Cal, and had also been perfect inside of 50 yards. Throw in the fact that he’s become the Pac-12’s all-time leading scorer, and that’s a difficult resume to overlook.

But at Utah, Fairbairn missed from 49 yards away, which is forgivable given that it’s only his second hiccup of the season. But if voters don’t look closely, they’ll just see a miss in the 40-49 category. He’ll be safer if he hits another one from 50-plus, or nails a dramatic game-winner.