DT Star Lotulelei
Looking to rebound from a tough loss the previous week, the UCLA Bruins will welcome the Utah Utes to the Rose Bowl on Saturday at 12:00 PM PDT.
Both teams have had their ups and downs thus far in the season, and each squad has been dealing with inconsistency from younger players. Utah currently sits with a disappointing 2-3 record, but make no mistake about the fact that this team does possess good talent—namely on the defensive side of the ball.
Linebacker/defensive end Trevor Reilly and corner Ryan Lacy are potential All-Conference performers, while defensive tackle Star Lotulelei is regarded as the top defensive tackle prospect in the entire country. It's widely assumed that Lotulelei will be a top 10 pick in the upcoming 2013 draft.
The Bruins are sitting at 4-2, and a return trip home couldn't have come at a better time. Offensively, the team looked out of sync last Saturday against Cal. Quarterback Brett Hundley had a horrible game, throwing for four interceptions while being pestered throughout the night by the opposing defensive line. In all honesty, it was the first time that he truly looked like a freshman.
In order to win Saturday, Hundley will have to perform with more consistency and confidence. Dually, tailback Johnathan Franklin needs to touch the rock upwards of 20 times.
Let's take a look at four keys to the game for UCLA against Utah.
White is Utah's most explosive player
Surprisingly, Utah is having trouble running the ball this season.
The Utes rank 112th nationally in rushing yards with an average of 105 yards per contest. John White—a second-team all-Pac-12 selection in 2011—only has 301 yards on 78 carries to go along with one touchdown. That works out to a paltry 3.9 yards per carry average.
It's a far cry from where White was a year ago. The diminutive back from Torrance, Calif. took the Pac-12 by storm last season, finishing second in the conference with 1,519 yards in addition to 15 touchdowns on the ground.
White has been slowed by injury this season and hasn't been the explosive force that he was a year ago. To make matters worse, Utah's offensive line has been pedestrian. As a group, the line has allowed 12 sacks thus far. Pass protection has been an issue, and the running lanes for White simply haven't been there.
Sam Brenner and Tevita Stevens lead the group, and true freshman right tackle Jeremiah Poutasi perhaps has the highest upside of any member.
UCLA's defense has shown the propensity to allow big gains on the ground. To shore up the middle of the field, the Bruins have moved outside 'backer Jordan Zumwalt to the inside, and have shifted Damien Holmes to the outside. This theoretically will allow Holmes to play with more comfort on the perimeter, while Zumwalt's physicality and overall athleticism should suit him well inside.
The Bruins need to stop White and make Utah beat them through the air. UCLA should have the upper hand with their defensive line, but as mentioned above, the team is susceptible to allowing big gains. UCLA is allowing 160 yards a game on the ground this season, which isn't exactly great.
Regardless of what's transpired thus far, White is still Utah's best skill position player. Utah's game plan is predicated upon controlling the clock and allowing their defense to take over. One can assume that White will see plenty of the ball Saturday.
Lotulelei is a future first round pick
Utah ranks 35th nationally in overall defense, allowing only 114.8 rushing yards a contest.
A big reason for the defensive success is due to the Utah defensive line. This unit is unequivocally the strength of this team. The Utes possess not only talent, but great depth. Brothers Joe and Dave Kruger are very solid, while defensive end Nate Fakahafua is very fast off the edge.
The undisputed leader of the line, however, is defensive tackle Starlite "Star" Lotulelei.
Any and all accolades thrown towards Lotulelei are rightfully deserved. At 6'4", 320 pounds, he possesses a great combination of both quickness and power. Lotulelei's stats are not eye-popping by any stretch, but that's mainly because he's double and even triple-teamed on every single play. Teams virtually game plan around the anchor in the middle of the Utes defense, which as a result frees up other members of the Utah defensive line to make plays.
Lotulelei was an All-Pac-12 first-team selection last year, and he is widely regarded as the top defensive tackle prospect in the entire nation.
Defending against Lotulelei—and the entire Utah defensive line—is a tall task for UCLA's offensive line. Last week against Cal, the line was absolutely torched. Freshman tackles Torian White and Simon Goines struggled considerably, and White was even benched midway through the third quarter.
Fortunately for the Bruins, their best lineman Xavier Su'a-Filo should be matched up with Lotulelei inside. Problems still persist on the outside, where Joe Kruger and Fakahafua should have an advantage against the young duo of White and Goines.
With Utah's defensive line expected to have a leg up on the Bruins' offensive line, Jim Mora's squad will have to get creative in order to run the ball effectively in this contest.
QB Jon Hays
Who will start for the Utes? At this point, it's a mystery that probably won't be answered until the kickoff on Saturday afternoon.
It's been a true quarterback carousel for the Utes this season. Projected starter Jordan Wynn was forced to retire due to an accumulation of shoulder injuries. Nebraska-Omaha transfer Jon Hays took the keys to the Utah car, and has been underwhelming.
This season, the senior has thrown for 627 yards to go along with six touchdowns and two interceptions. Those numbers aren't terrible by any stretch, but Hays hasn't exactly galvanized the Utah offense with excitement and production. Currently, Utah ranks 114th in the nation in total offense, averaging 299.40 yards per game.
With limited arm strength, Hays relies on moxie and intelligence as opposed to great physical tools. He's undoubtedly a heady player, but doesn't have the tools to fully maximize the potential of a good receiving corps led by Dres Anderson, DeVonte Christopher and Kenneth Scott.
Last week against Southern Cal, he was pulled in the fourth quarter in favor of true freshman Travis Wilson. The 6'7" 230-pound San Clemente, Calif. native performed admirably in limited time, to the point where Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham has yet to divulge who the starter will be on Saturday.
Wilson has better physical tools when compared to Hays, but he also a very limited amount of experience on the collegiate level. If he does start, expect UCLA to put him in uncomfortable situations via exotic blitz packages.
It's simple from UCLA's perspective: make Hays and/or Wilson beat you. A large portion of the game plan could center around the Bruins bottling White up in the backfield. With that in mind, UCLA's starting corners will be playing primarily man-to-man out on an island.
As they have been all year, UCLA probably will continue to press the Utah receivers at the line of scrimmage. However, that strategy could come back to bite the Bruins. Starting corners Sheldon Price and Aaron Hester have yet to show that they can consistently cover without help from the safeties.
If the Bruins choose to stack the box and blitz with safeties, the Utes could choose to take advantage of the one-on-one match-ups presented outside and go over the top for potential big plays.
Brett Hundley needs a bounce back performance
UCLA needs to put the blowout in Berkeley behind them and come out with a renewed sense of focus on Saturday.
It will be very interesting to see how this young team responds to the adversity of last week. Hundley had by far the worst game of his young UCLA career. The three freshmen starting on the offensive line were overwhelmed by both Cal's talent up front and by the raucous atmosphere of a road game, and the defense looked extremely shaky.
With youth comes inconsistency, so this shouldn't come as a surprise. There's only so many things that can be controlled, but effort and discipline are two aspects that should always be present. The effort shown by Mora's team has been generally good, but the discpline and focus hasn't been there completely.
Right now, UCLA is averaging almost nine penalties a contest (8.83) and have been penalized for an average of 86.50 yards per game. Against Cal last week, they committed an astonishing 12 penalties. Many of those penalties were due to a lack of concentration stemming mostly from false starts and being drawn offsides.
It should help the young Bruins' team immensely that this contest is at home in the Rose Bowl. It's imperative that the Bruins don't turn the ball over, and that Hundley is consistent with his decision making. Utah will probably stack the box looking to stop Franklin, so it's incumbent upon Hundley to be successful on throws downfield.
This is a big game for both Utah and UCLA. Both teams are jockeying for position in the Pac-12 South Division, and this could be a indicator as to whether either can eventually challenge USC at the top of the division.