The UCLA Bruins had just finished practicing Tuesday morning from the comfort of their home in Westwood, Calif., when coach Jim Mora Jr. met with with the gaggle of beat writers at the corner of Spaulding Field.
They wanted to know about Thursday night's game 700 miles away in Salt Lake City, Utah, where UCLA would play its first Pac-12 game of the season against the University of Utah.
"I haven't played there before," Mora Jr. said in a video published at UCLA's official athletics website. "Heck, a lot of our team hasn't there before, so we're looking forward to going in there. We've heard it's a hostile environment."
Hostile, indeed. A Thursday night game in the high desert/Rocky Mountains of Utah is nothing a visiting football team should take lightly. Rice-Eccles Stadium, a bright burning torch in the alpine darkness, will be filled with more than 45,000 red-blooded college football zealots.
The terrain and its occupants have been unkind to UCLA in the past. After going 8-0 against Utah as an irregular, non-conference opponent, the Bruins lost their final non-conference matchup with the Utes in 2007, 44-6.
That was when the Bruins were ranked No. 11 and the university family thought Karl Dorrell was an alchemist who had managed to cook up real gold.
We found out at the dim bar in Westwood, looking at a wall of televisions, that the product was barely gilded and instead of at least something solid, ugly and useful like lead beneath the shine, it was more like soggy plywood and worthless.
There were rumors then that the Pac-12 was going to expand the league and you knew Utah could come over from the Mountain West and hold its own. They had startlingly physical and disciplined teams, and in their final three years in the conference they went 21-3 before saying farewell and joining the Pac-12.
Then came 2011 and the first collision as conference foes, when Utah again clobbered UCLA in Salt Lake City, 31-6. That was when everyone knew Rick Neuheisel's career as head coach at UCLA was speeding toward its conclusion.
Only last season with Travis Wilson, a freshman, making his first start at quarterback for the Utes, and UCLA playing back home in Los Angeles, did the Bruins find a way to win. UCLA had the ball last and ran out the clock to preserve its narrow lead, 21-14.
Now they rematch and UCLA comes in ranked No. 13 and 3-0 while the Utes are 3-1, with the loss a 51-48 overtime game at home against Oregon State. The Bruins—a team being hooked and dragged more each week by the vast expectations of the media machine—can leave Salt Lake City as the only team in the South Division without a conference loss.
Utah will make a stern test in every facet of the game, except special teams, and probably more than anywhere on offense, where it begins with the coaching. Brian Johnson, the MVP of the 2009 Sugar Bowl—the game where Utah knocked out Nick Saban's Crimson Tide in a year many professional analysts said they were good enough to win a national championship—is a co-coordinator.
His cohort is Dennis Erickson, the creative offensive mind who was considered one of the best coaches in America when he won two national championships at Miami. He coached with Mora Jr. in the NFL and knows the Pac-12 from nine years as head coach at Oregon State and Arizona State.
Utah's offense, which last year struggled both to throw and run, has been surprisingly strong. In nearly any other league the 42 points per game they score would be near the top. They are fourth-best in the Pac-12, while UCLA is second at 52.7.
Wilson, their sophomore QB, is a strong player, both physically at 6'6'' and 240 pounds, and in his skill set. He completes 64 percent of his throws for nearly 280 yards per game with nine touchdowns and three interceptions. He runs it himself for another 63 yards per game.
The Utes run the ball slightly more than they throw it at 38 plays against 30 per game, on average, and collect another 218 yards per game that way.
They operate out of a shotgun spread offense, which can be difficult to defend—but because UCLA practices against their own spread everyday, they start on an equal footing they didn't have in the past until last season, when they won.
It will be the cliched "battle up front" that will determine the game. UCLA must attack Wilson and Bubba Poole, the Utes' leading rusher, relentlessly with the depth they have in their three-down linemen. The interchangeable—three for three—substitution pattern should allow them to keep everybody's endurance meters high.
Utah's offensive line was a weakness last season when they rushed for 132 yards per game and allowed 25 sacks. It is better this year with vastly more experience, but is not a dominant group.
UCLA's defense, which has been solid, though not spectacular, has not thoroughly pressured teams that, in comparing attributes, they should have crushed. Through three games, the Bruins have six sacks and 21 tackles for loss.
Utah, whose defense allows six more points per game at 24.3 than UCLA does at 18, has 15 sacks through four games and 31 tackles for loss. The Utes have 13 players with a recorded sack, while their defensive line—playing from the 4-3—has made the majority of the tackles for loss.
The Bruins' front seven, where the most experience on the team resides, including two minesweeper interior linebackers in Eric Kendricks and Jordan Zumwalt, must protect the vulnerably young back end of the defense.
Wilson distributes the ball to a variety of receivers. Dres Anderson is their best with three touchdowns and 22.4 yards per catch, but three other players have double-digit receptions and five other receivers have caught touchdown passes.
The Utes lost Kenneth Scott, the other half of their top receiving tandem, for the season to a leg injury in their opener against Utah State.
From a physical standpoint, UCLA's athletes should be able to match up and cover all of Utah's targets, but pressuring the quarterback to get rid of the football or throw from an uncomfortable position is going to be critical.
Young or not, those defensive backs are going to have to be ready to hit and be hit if they are on the field. Mora Jr. talks almost every day about physical and mental toughness and both of those qualities will be required on Thursday night. The game against Nebraska was a test for that group, but Utah will hit harder than Nebraska, and as conference game the physical nature will be more personal.
UCLA's offense can move the ball on anyone. There is so much speed and depth at the skill positions and Brett Hundley has proven—in Lincoln, Neb., most impressively—that he can be counted on to calmly deliver the ball to the right player. His mistakes have been limited this season and as a player he is so hard on himself it does not make sense to think of him as a repeat offender or a liability.
It is good news for Damien Thigpen that he is healthy enough again to play football. But, he will probably be worked back in slowly. Running back is one of UCLA's deepest positions.
The Bruins will defer to that depth, running Jordan James, Paul Perkins and Steven Manfro as Noel Mazzone checks them for heat. Manfro showed against New Mexico State what people who watch him have known all along—the kid can play. He looked like a stocky little roadrunner, his legs a cloudy blur, as he hit top speed quickly and cut with enormous confidence.
Having Manfro, who like all the backs catches passes too, is just more capable depth behind James—who is a stud. Perkins and even Malcolm Jones, who as a senior has something to prove (and I believe still wants to play professional football), can both collect yards and be counted on to protect the football.
The game is clearly weighted in talent toward UCLA. But talent can be knocked off what it wants to do by being hurt or intimidated by physical play, or by being distracted by an environment that makes it forget what it came to do.
The Bruins will get both of those things in Salt Lake City, and the Utes will delver it steadily over 60 minutes under the direction of Kyle Whittingham, their head coach these last nine years.
Whittingham has been in Utah for undefeated seasons, and he has taken his team to a Bowl Championship Series victory against Alabama, the most powerful football program in America. Against UCLA, he will test the young Bruins to see just how much they can take.
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