Utah fell out of contention for the Pac-12 South crown on Saturday afternoon in disappointing fashion. USC lost to Oregon, setting the table for Utah to regain control of their own destiny, but it was not to be, as the UCLA defense held the Utes to only three field goals. After holding a two game lead in the Pac-12 south late in October, the Utes have dropped three of their past five games and are now facing the real possibility of not improving upon last year's record. Here's how Saturday's game graded out.
Coming into this game, there was concern over how well the offense would operate without Devontae Booker. In his place, junior Joe Williams got his first start and played pretty well, gaining 121 yards on 26 carries. Travis Wilson also had a decent day running the ball, picking up 67 yards on 18 carries, including some big scrambles on third and fourth down. Overall the offense struggled however. Utah could not move the ball through the air, with Wilson passing for only 110 yards. Much of the afternoon, Utah didn't even attempt to throw the ball. Their best drive came at the start the second half, which consisted of eleven run plays and only one pass play, which was incomplete.
Utah only managed to get into the red zone twice on Saturday, once losing possession on a Joe Williams fumble, the second time needing to settle for a field goal after having first a goal on UCLA's two yard line. Despite the struggles of the offense all afternoon, Utah still had a chance to tie the game on their final possession. Driving late in the fourth quarter, Travis Wilson fumbled the a play action fake on third and ten, and UCLA recovered, effectively ending the game. Utah's offensive struggles are nothing new, but with the opportunity to regain control of the Pac-12 south on the line, the offense laid an absolute egg, failing to score a touchdown. Due to the high stakes of the game and the wasted opportunites in the red zone, this offensive performance (or lack of) will be remembered for a long time.
After a first quarter that saw UCLA march down the field to score a quick ten points on their first two possessions, it looked as though it might be a long day for Utah's defense. To their credit, they settled down and held UCLA to a just a touchdown the rest of the way. Josh Rosen was held below his average performance, completing just 50% of his passes for just one touchdown. Paul Perkins, one of the Pac-12's best runners, was held under 100 yards rushing on 28 attempts. Utah held UCLA to just 17 points, well below their season average, and allowed UCLA to score on 27% of their possessions, much lower than the 50% scoring rate they averaged on the road entering the game.
There were too many third down conversions down the stretch, and the defense had problems getting off the field at times. UCLA receiver Jordan Payton had a good day with seven catches for 105 yards and the Utah secondary was unable to stop UCLA's passing attack a few key situations. Perhaps the biggest knock, was zero turnovers for the defense in a game in which they so desperately needed one. The defense was close to a couple picks, but just could not get their hands on one. At the end of the day however, it's tough to put too much blame on the defense. They held a team averaging 35.2 points per game to just 17, and gave their offense every opportunity to win the game. The Utah defense held their own in the tough loss.
Andy Phillips did his part, accounting for all nine of Utah's points on his three field goal attempts. Tom Hackett punted five times for 247 yards landing three of his five inside the Bruin 20-yard line. On coverage, no big returns were given up and Boobie Hobbs didn't make any major errors filling in for Covey as a punt returner. Overall another solid day by the special teams unit.
The coaching staff seemed to stick with the same old game plan, despite not having Booker available. There was no evidence of new wrinkles or designed plays to to get others involved, rather it was a predictable run-run-pass sequence only with Joe Williams instead of Booker. When Covey went out with an injury, effectively eliminating Utah's pass offense, the coaching staff resorted to throwing bubble screens with an occasional deep throw to Kenneth Scott.
With first and goal at UCLA's two yard line, Utah ran the ball three times failing to score a touchdown. With the ball so close to the endzone in a key game, it is the offensive playcaller's responsibility to figure out a way to get his players in the endzone. Calling three basic run plays and kicking a field goal was uninspiring.
After calling such a conservative game through most of the afternoon, the staff called upon Wilson to win the game with his arm. However Wilson was not in rhythm, having not thrown the ball much of the game, and struggled to find his receivers. Despite this, Wilson battled, creating most of the offense late in the fourth quarter by simply improvising with his feet. Utah's last offensive play epitomized the entire afternoon, when on third and ten the staff called a play action pass, which resulted in a fumble on the fake handoff. There was no reason to run play action on that down and distance and the decision backfired. Overall the staff was out coached by UCLA.