2018 has not been kind to Chip Kelly’s Bruins. Boasting a 2-5 record, including home losses to Group of Five opponents, Cincinnati and Fresno State, UCLA looked dead in the water until a dominating win over Cal seemed to breathe some life back into the floundering program. Now with back-to-back conference wins under their belt, the Bruins are hoping for a late season surge to keep their conference championship hopes alive.
While the overall record looks bad, UCLA’s season hasn’t been a complete failure. The offense has produced admirably considering an overall lack of experience and some expected growing pains in Kelly’s first year, and losses to Group of Five teams are hard to swallow, Cincinnati and Fresno State boast top 10 defensive units. In fact, excluding Utah, UCLA has faced four of the nation’s top 25 defenses so far this season and have still managed to score an average of 22.8 points per game. As you’d expect from a Chip Kelly offense, UCLA can score…they just can’t stop anyone from doing the same.
In a season where half of UCLA’s opponents rank in the upper third of total defense, the Bruins are approaching rock bottom. Out of 129 teams, UCLA currently ranks 100th in total defense, allowing 5.57 yards per play and 28 opponent touchdowns. Their red zone defense clocks in at 111th nationally, allowing opponents to score 90.6% of the time from inside the 20, while their third down defense is an abysmal 122nd. Utah fans should be especially excited that. on top of all of this, the Bruins rush defense has allowed a whopping 1,349 yards on the season through 312 attempts, good for an average of 4.32 yards allowed per rush, placing them 101stnationally.
It’s easy to look at UCLA’s defensive unit as a complete dumpster fire, but there are some good things happening in Pasadena. UCLA has only allowed five 4th down conversions on 12 attempts, good for 31st best in the nation. Even more threatening, the Bruins are a turnover machine, recovering seven fumbles on the season (tied 19th best nationally) and intercepting six passes (tied for 58th nationally). To top it all off, UCLA’s pass defense is commendable, allowing 134 completions on 223 attempts, 60th best nationally.
Leading the way for UCLA’s formidable secondary is sophomore cornerback, Darnay Holmes. As one of the better pass defenders in the PAC-12 South, Holmes has hands, speed and awareness comparable to a receiver but can lay out an opponent with dominating brute force, making him a dangerous threat to Utah’s passing game. Having forced two fumbles and recording one interception so far this season, Holmes is one to look out for in Friday’s matchup.
Up front, junior linebacker Keisean Lucier-South is a disruptive force, having racked up 9.5 tackles for loss and three sacks on the season while also accounting for one interception and two forced fumbles. At 6’4” and 235 lbs, Lucier-South is a physically imposing player and will surely cause problems for Utah’s backfield.
Joining Lucier-South at linebacker is fellow junior, Krys Barnes. Accounting for an additional seven tackles for loss and a sack, Barnes and Lucier-South together make a chaotic linebacking combo for opposing offenses. It should come as no surprise that Barnes is one of six players to have also recorded an interception in 2018, proving the Bruins defense will rely heavily on takeaways to stop Utah’s offense from moving.
On paper, the Utes have every advantage working with them, but as we all know, anything can happen in the PAC-12 and every week is a battle. UCLA’s week-by-week improvement has shown they’re still a force to be reckoned with. The Utes will still need to give it everything they have if they hope to make it out of the Rose Bowl smelling like…well, roses.