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Desperate for victory, Utah rolls into Pasadena looking to do something the program has never done before.
Utah, losers of their last two, will look to avoid their first three-game losing streak in seven years when they travel to take on the UCLA Bruins - a team they've yet to defeat on the road.
Oddly, the Utes have won two-straight against the Bruins, their lone two wins in the series (they're 2-8, with three of those losses coming in Salt Lake City). But this isn't the UCLA team Utah beat rather easily last year and they're certainly not the one that got rolled at Rice-Eccles Stadium 44-6 in 2007. No, under first year head coach Jim Mora, they've shown some life ... even if they're coming off an ugly, lopsided 43-17 loss to Cal.
This is going to be a tough game for Utah to win and I suspect the UCLA players will be fired up after that defeat to the Golden Bears. It doesn't hurt that they're playing at home, a place, like I said, that has been unkind to Utah. The Utes' last trip to Pasadena, back at the start the 2006 season, did not go well as Utah left 31-10 losers. A score like that, especially with the Utes' struggles on the road this season, could definitely play out this Saturday if Utah fails to bring their A-game.
Fortunately, as California showed this past weekend, UCLA is beatable and with how suspect their defense has looked this season, the Utes' offense just might finally get the break they've been looking for after a string of top-level defenses - Utah has played the 5th, 11th, 17th and 32nd best defenses (in yards given up per game) in the country. UCLA ranks 78th.
So, this is definitely a reprieve for a struggling offense and hopefully they can use it to their benefit ... especially their ground game, which looked better last week against USC, but still had problems. John White IV might not be fully healthy, but joined with Kelvin York in the backfield against what is now the 66th best rush defense should improve their standing considerably.
More importantly, though, is Jon Hays and the passing game. The Bruins have the 88th best passing
offense defense ... which should open some things up in the secondary (or you would think).
All this leads me to believe that Utah should be able to move the ball better than they have at any point this season. If they can't in this game Saturday, then when? I mean, that's the question we'll have to ask if they leave Pasadena with just as anemic offense as when they entered. No excuses, outside No. Colorado, this is the worst defense they've faced all season and that should, you would think, open the offense just a tad ... if not more.
Now, where Utah might run into problems this game, outside their offense struggling against a weakened defense, is the Utes' own defense. UCLA runs a spread offense and it's very efficient. Even last week in their loss, they still managed 382 total yards ... almost 100 more than Utah averages this season. As we saw against the Sun Devils a few weeks ago, a good spread offense can easily pick apart the Utes' sometimes questionable defense.
So, that puts us in the position for a potential shootout this weekend. Brett Hundley is a helluva quarterback and I don't think he'll have too much problem throwing down field on Utah. That's the scary part. But if this offense can continue improving, as I think they did Thursday, then things get interesting. But, and this is the most important factor in Saturday's game, they need to put together their best game of the season because with how the Utes' passing defense ranks (69th), if they don't, this game could get away from 'em pretty fast.
But this is a winnable game ... definitely more winnable than the USC game felt this time last week. I like Utah's chances because I do believe they've found some confidence in their close loss to the Trojans. Of course, a lot of that confidence could vanish with a sluggish start on the road against a team that, up until the past two outings, has dominated this series.
Even so, UCLA does have the added benefit of playing at home. You can't overestimate how big that is, especially in a stadium like the Rose Bowl, which could, all things considered, still be overwhelming for a team like Utah. They're also far better coached this season than last year. I don't know if Mora is the long-term answer, but right now, after their abysmal play in 2011, he seems to have this team at least consistent and that's huge because they haven't been consistent since, really, the Terry Donahue era.
For the Utes, this game offers a chance to finally break through in Pac-12 play this year. They're already out of the Pac-12 South hunt, but can still play, and fight for, a decent bowl berth. I know that might sound ridiculous, considering they're 2-3, but you'd be surprised at how fast a season can turn successful. In fact, we saw it last year.
What better way to turn things around than with a win against a division rival in their house?