With injuries piling up and an offense that ranks 115thnationally in points per game, it’s easy to overlook the UCLA Bruins, however there have been some recent signs of life in Pasadena, suggesting Chip Kelly’s squad is poised for a mid-season breakthrough. Despite their 2-5 overall record, the Bruins are very much in the hunt for the wide-open PAC-12 South title, making Friday night’s match-up another do-or-die opportunity for the Utes in their quest for conference supremacy.
True freshman quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson has admirably navigated the Bruins offense through their rockiest season in decades, completing 103 of 171 attempted passes and gaining 1,176 yards. Unfortunately for the Bruins, DTR was sidelined in the first half of last week’s match-up against Arizona after an apparent injury and remained on the bench the remainder of the game. Early reports out of Pasadena suggest Robinson has seen limited reps in practice since and has not participated in throwing drills in the first few practices after the injury, leaving his availability for the Utah game up for question. Enter graduate transfer, Wilton Speight.
Speight was initially named the Bruins’ starting quarterback heading into week one, however his time was cut short after suffering a back injury in his first start, leading to Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s premature debut. In his first taste of action since the injury, Speight led the Bruins to a 31-30 victory over Arizona, completing 17 of 27 passes, accumulating 204 yards with two touchdowns and zero interceptions. Having seen only limited field time since his 2016 campaign in Michigan (a season where he completed 61.6% of his passes for 2,538 yards with 18 touchdowns and seven interceptions with a 9-3 record), what little we’ve seen from the grad transfer suggests he’s more than capable of leading this Bruin’s squad while Robinson heals, but one fact should give UCLA fans a reason to hesitate; Speight is as injury prone as they come, missing time every year he has started, and Utah’s animalistic defense has sidelined three quarterbacks in just two weeks’ time. Without a viable third string option available, keeping Speight healthy is going to be critical if UCLA hopes to keep their post-season dreams alive.
The Bruins leading running back, junior Joshua Kelley has stepped into a much larger role over the past three weeks,rushing a total of 81 times in the last three weeks compared to 32 in his first three games. His uptick in production has translated into positive results for the Bruins, including in a narrow 31-24 loss to Washington, followed by their first two wins of the season where he rushed 30 times for 157 yards against Cal and 136 yards on 31 attempts against Arizona. In fact, in his last three games, Kelley is averaging 5.16 yards per rush and has accounted for half of UCLA’s touchdowns. Utah’s top-ranked rush defense is allowing less than 75 yards per game, making this an intriguing match-up. Up to this point, only Washington’s Myles Gaskin has successfully rushed for over 100 yards against the Utes this season.
Downfield, Utah’s secondary will need to contain two dynamic receivers in juniors Theo Howard and Caleb Wilson. Wilson in particular has stepped into his own over the last three weeks, gaining 276 of his 417 yards during UCLA’s recent offensive surge. Howard on the other hand, has reliably averaged about four grabs per game all season while averaging 53 yards per game. Although both have shown potential for big, deep plays, they’ve combined for a mere three touchdowns on the season, none of which have come during UCLA’s current two-game win streak, making them almost a non-factor in Utah’s red zone defense.
The Bruins are a young team and have a proven offensive wizard at the helm in Chip Kelly; regardless of their record, they can’t be overlooked. As the first half of back-to-back road games, the Utes defense will need to continue performing as they have all season if they plan on keeping control of their PAC-12 South destiny. Otherwise, a surging Bruins squad looks poised to pounce at the opportunity to claim the number one spot.