What to watch: No. 8 UCLA vs. Utah

UCLA returns to the Rose Bowl tonight at 7:30 p.m. to host Utah, a program that has given the Bruins a good fight their last few meetings despite ending each season with a lackluster record. Jim Mora’s team looked uneven out of the gate this season, but appears to be rounding closer to the playoff-contending form most analysts expected.

A few things to watch for in the matchup:

UCLA offense vs. Utah defense: On paper, Utah’s defense looks excellent across the board. The Utes rank eighth in the country in sacks (18), 19th in opponent passing yards per attempt (5.8), 21st in rushing yards per attempt (2.97), 29th in scoring defense (19.8).

Defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake hasn’t been afraid to dial up pressure from the outside. Defensive ends Nate Orchard, Hunter Dimick and Jason Fanaika have combined for 10 sacks, as well as 46 tackles. Orchard has also dropped back in certain formations, and has two pass breakups and two passes defended. Linebackers Jared Norris and Gionni Paul have also been effective: the former leads the team with 6.5 tackles for loss, while the latter with the interceptions.

The defense has also only surrendered one rushing touchdown this season, something only eight other teams in the FBS can claim. Continue reading

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After Oregon’s loss, is UCLA the new Pac-12 favorite?

Nearly four months ago, UCLA was listed as an early favorite almost through its entire 2014 schedule. The exception? Mighty Oregon, just a year removed from four straight BCS bowls, and an early three-point favorite.

My, how things have changed.

UCLA stumbled out of the gate, collecting three uneven wins before stomping on then-No. 15 Arizona State last Thursday. The Bruins still have question marks, but they’re on the upswing, and back in the hearts and minds of at least a few national pundits. One ESPN analyst has them in the San Francisco Bowl, but another picked the Fiesta Bowl. CBS Sports has slotted UCLA back into the Sugar Bowl, as the No. 4 seed in a national semifinal against Alabama.

The No. 2 Ducks, meanwhile, might have cost themselves national title hopes with their 31-24 loss at home last night to Arizona — the most surprising undefeated team left in the country. (Earlier this week, Yahoo! Sports’ Pat Forde wrote this of the Wildcats: “Chances of being unbeaten by Halloween: zero.”) Continue reading

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Five questions: Salt Lake Tribune’s Kyle Goon talks Utah

UCLA returns to the Rose Bowl on Saturday to host Utah, a team that — despite struggling since moving to the Pac-12 — has lost to the Bruins by only a touchdown in their last two meetings. The Salt Lake Tribune’s Kyle Goon answered five questions about the Utes.

1. Utah won four Pac-12 games in 2011, three in 2012, then two in 2013. Even if Kyle Whittingham’s job isn’t truly at risk this season, how much of a leash does he have moving forward?

We don’t have a concrete answer except to say that it is fairly tight. Our columnist Gordon Monson wrote about assistant coaches contracts in August, which haven’t been rolled over as they usually are. It seems like the baseline of success is winning six games and going to a bowl, which the Utes haven’t done in two years. If they don’t meet that standard, it seems the athletic department is poised to make at least big changes on the staff.

Whittingham has built up a lot of faith over the years by winning games and helping Utah be in position to make the Pac-12, and a lot of fans would like to see him stay. Still, many are wondering if he’s the guy who can lead the program to success in the Pac-12 era. He needs to show some kind of progress this year, which at this point is three Pac-12 wins, to keep his seat surely out of the flame.

2. After throwing nearly an interception for every touchdown over his first two seasons, Travis Wilson hasn’t been picked off yet. Does he look like a significantly better quarterback, or is he due for another turnover-heavy game? (Also, is he one bad hit away from potentially risking his career again?)

Two weeks ago, I would’ve said Travis Wilson is significantly better. The two games since have clouded the signs of progress. Continue reading

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First look: Utah Utes

No. 8 UCLA Bruins (4-0, 1-0) vs. Utah Utes (3-1, 0-1)
Kickoff: Saturday, 7:30 p.m. PT, Rose Bowl
TV: ESPN (Mark Jones, Rod Gilmore, Jessica Mendoza)
Radio: 1150 Fox Sports LA / SIRIUS 136 (Chris Roberts, Matt Stevens, Wayne Cook)

Coach: Kyle Whittingham isn’t exactly on the hot seat, but the 54-year-old is at a bit of a crossroads in the midst of his 10th season at Utah.

Through his first six years, the Utes finished top-three in the Mountain West all but once — punctuating five straight postseason wins with a perfect 13-0 run to the Fiesta Bowl. His team finally stumbled in 2012 and lost to Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl, but still finished 23rd in the coaches’ poll.

Conference expansion knocked the program completely off course. Utah has yet to win a Pac-12 opener, and finished league play with four wins in 2011, three in 2012, and two in 2013. The Utes’ offense has finished either 11th or 12th in the Pac-12 in each of those seasons, which has pushed Whittingham into trying to juggle offensive coordinators like a bad Penn Jillette impression.

Utah’s 2014 campaign looked more promising after a road upset of Michigan, but the team followed up by blowing a 21-point lead to Washington State last weekend.

Key players:

QB Travis Wilson, Jr., 6-7, 233 — 56/96, 783 yards, 7 TD, 0 INT, 33 carries, 81 rushing yards, 1 TD
– About as tough as any quarterback you’ll find in the country, the San Clemente product looks more efficient after throwing 23 touchdowns against 22 interceptions over his first two seasons. Continue reading

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UCLA’s Saturday game against Utah to kick off at 7:30 p.m.

Fresh off a decisive win at Arizona State on national television, UCLA will spend another weekend in the spotlight.

After playing three of their first four games away from the Rose Bowl, the Bruins will return home on Saturday for a 7:30 p.m. kickoff against Utah on ESPN. UCLA moved up to No. 8 in the Associated Press poll after their 62-27 win over ASU.

The Utes’ promising start to the season was spoiled by Washington State’s 28-27 comeback victory in Salt Lake City. Utah had blown out Idaho State and Fresno State by 74 combined points to start the year, then beat Michigan, 26-10, on the road.

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Pac-12 links: Oregon State’s Mike Riley is the conference’s coaching ‘godfather’

» In a conference filled with newcomers, Oregon State coach Mike Riley is heading into his 14th season in the Pac-12. “Mike’s kind of a godfather,” said Stanford’s David Shaw.

» Apparently no longer content with uniform experimentation, Oregon will debut scratch-and-sniff season tickets this year. Unfortunately, the sticker is a Carl’s Jr. ad and likely smells like burgers rather than ducks.

» A former ASU running back was found shot to death on a hiking trial near Sedona. Continue reading

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Which players have the best names in the Pac-12?

By now, you’ve read many of the lists that have proliferated in college football’s dry summer months. The best 100 players. The freakiest players. The best coaches, best offseasons, best uniforms.

But this? This is the most important of them all. With Pac-12 Media Days — schedule here — kicking off this morning, I have compiled the five best names from each team in the conference.

Without further ado …

Arizona: Sir Thomas Jackson, Antonio Smothers, Tra’Mayne Bondurant, Brogan Kemmerly, Abraham Mendivil

Not great depth here, as the latter two names sacrifice catchiness in favor of length. Still, Sir Thomas Jackson alone is an MVP candidate.

Arizona State: Ezekial Bishop, Demetrius Cherry, Zane Gonzalez, Jaxon Hood, Jaelen Strong

A solid quintet that lacks a superstar.

Cal: Hardy Nickerson, Avery Sebastian, Bryce Treggs, Brennan Scarlett, Maximo Espitia

A nice throwback in Hardy Nickerson, bookended by a name that makes me want to re-watch Russell Crowe take on a despotic Joaquin Phoenix. Continue reading

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UCLA cruises past Utah, moves within one game of Pac-12 lead

Warm applause greeted Jordan Adams as he sat down on UCLA’s bench, leaving a blowout win with over eight minutes left on the clock.

The sophomore guard could’ve easily topped his career-high, but his Bruins were already well on their way to a 80-66 victory over Utah — one that featured yet another explosive second half. No sense in risking injury to their leading scorer.

Even without needing him for nearly a quarter of the game, UCLA now sits just one game back from Arizona for first in the Pac-12.

Adams finished with 24 points, knocking down all three of his attempts from downtown and shooting 10-of-14 overall. Continue reading

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What to watch: Utah at UCLA

Utah (17-7, 6-6) at UCLA (19-5, 8-3)
When:
Saturday, 2 p.m., Pauley Pavilion
TV: Pac-12 Networks (JB Long, Don MacLean)
Radio: AM 570 (Chris Roberts, Tracy Murray)

No. 1: How will Utah fare away from home? On Thursday, the Utes beat USC to finally notch their first road win since Jan. 19, 2013. With a trip through the Bay Area still looming, it may very well be their last of the regular season.

Most bothersome for the up-and-coming program is the inability to finish on the road. In their five road losses in conference play, they thrice blew double-digit leads.

The Bruins had one of their worst offensive halves of the season in Salt Lake City last month, and haven’t completely shaken the slow-start bug since. They can’t afford losing at Pauley Pavilion to a lesser team, not when first place is within sights again thanks to Arizona State’s upset of Arizona.

No. 2: Delon Wright. The younger brother of NBA forward Dorell Wright turned out to be a major recruiting coup for the Utes, transferring from the City College of San Francisco to become their most versatile player. Continue reading

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