Thursday, 3 October 2013

The Pac-12 Journey 2013 Game 42: UCLA looks into the mirror and plays a less talented reflection

Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports (left), no photographer listed (right)

Who is playing?

The 12th ranked UCLA Bruins and the Utah Utes.

Where is this game being played?

Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, Utah.

What time does the game start and where can I find it on my television?

7:00 PM (PT) on Fox Sports 1.

What is the point spread?

 UCLA is favored by six points (-6).

What should I watch for when UCLA has the ball?

How will UCLA's offensive line match up with Utah's defensive line? A common theory out there is that the Bruins have one of the nation's best offense lines but that statement is only partially true. Sure the Bruins have some big, physical, and experienced bodies up front that can mash opponents and clear big lanes for their running backs. However, UCLA has struggled mightily to keep QB Brett Hundley upright in pass protection. In terms of pass blocking, UCLA had one of the worst lines in college football last year allowing 52 sacks which was more than any other team in college football not named Washington State. The Bruins had a very young line last year that struggled against complex blitz packages but those players have markedly improved this year. But, the Bruins still have their moments of ineptitude along the line which has led to five sacks allowed in three games against less than stellar defenses. The Bruins certainly haven't shown an indication so far that they are ready to handle a ferocious front like Utah's.

Utah's front led by ends Trevor Reilly and Nate Orchard have been nearly unblockable against both the run and the pass. The Utes have amassed 15 sacks in four games (tied for sixth most in the nation) and 31 tackles for loss. It's not like the Utes haven't had a chance to prove themselves against top offenses either. Two weeks ago the Utes faced a BYU team that had been averaging better than 350 rushing yards per game and held them to under four yards per carry. They mostly shut down Chuckie Keeton and Utah State in the fourth quarter (first three didn't go so well) of a comeback win in week one and against Oregon State...well actually Utah would like to forget that one.

UCLA will have a tough time accounting for Utah's defensive front and will likely have to all but abandon the run game at some point. However, if the Bruins can give Hundley time to throw the ball then the Bruins will be able to expose the one dirty little secret about Utah's otherwise great defense. Utah has quietly been a dumpster fire in the defensive secondary. Weber State and BYU didn't have the horses to expose Utah's back end but Utah State and Oregon State sure did. Chuckie Keeton of USU and Sean Mannion of OSU combined to go 58/85 passing for 757 yards and seven touchdowns with no interceptions against Utah. Hundley is a more talented passer than either Keeton or Mannion and although he doesn't have Brandin Cooks to throw to, Shaq Evans and Devin Fuller are elite Pac-12 caliber receivers who can run free against the Utes' secondary.

What should I watch for when Utah has the ball?

All you NFL junkies who love to scout future draft prospects should have your eyes glued to Utah's possessions. More specifically, you should be watching the duel between Utah's left tackle Jeremiah Poutasi and UCLA outside linebacker Anthony Barr. Poutasi is only a sophomore but he has quickly made a name for himself as of one of the Pac-12's best all around offensive lineman. What makes Poutasi so unique and such a difficult person for UCLA is his combination of size and athleticism. He is 340 pounds with elite movement skills and that spells trouble for the Barr, the Bruins' most dynamic player. Barr torched Pac-12 offensive tackles all last season but he couldn't get past Poutasi in last year's UCLA-Utah game. Barr had his worst game as a pass rusher last year against Utah as Poutasi held him to half a tackle for a loss and no sacks.

This is very important because normally UCLA is able to rely on Barr to be their play maker and ultimate difference maker on defense. Barr may very well get his revenge and dominate Poutasi but UCLA can't count on that happening. That means someone else somewhere on UCLA's front needs to consistently win at the point of attack and get pressure on Utah QB Travis Wilson. You might be surprised by how similar UCLA's defense is to Utah's, the Bruins debuted four new starters in their secondary this season and still do not have much of an indication as to whether any of those four new players can perform or not. The Bruins have not yet faced a particularly great pocket passer save for Nebraska's Taylor Martinez who is far more of a running quarterback. Martinez torched UCLA in the first half of the UCLA-Nebraska game with three touchdowns and nearly 150 yards. In the second half, UCLA was able to cover for their struggling secondary by blowing up the Cornhuskers' offensive line and preventing Martinez from getting any time to throw. UCLA will have to replicate that tonight against Utah.

The bright side for UCLA can be found in watching tape of Utah's game against BYU. As a great as Poutasi is, the rest of the Utes' offensive line can't quite live up to his standard. BYU used a very physical approach with a 3-4 defensive front and was able to push back Utah's offensive line and re-establish the line of scrimmage three yards deep in the backfield. This gave Utah no room to run the ball or Wilson any time and space to throw down field. UCLA also uses a 3-4 alignment and their linebackers and defensive linemen compare very favorably to BYU's from a physicality and athleticism stand point.

Who should I bet on and who will win?

Utah has home field advantage and some favorable match ups against the Bruins that they will be able to exploit and keep this game close. Utah will struggle to give Travis Wilson consistent opportunities to test UCLA's secondary but when they do, Utah will be able to move the ball. Ultimately, UCLA is an athletically superior team and their offensive line should be more adept at pushing back Utah's front. Bruins tailbacks Jordan James, Paul Perkins, and Malcolm Jones certainly won't have career nights against the Utes but UCLA's very good run blockers should at least give UCLA a chance to maintain some balance and stay ahead of the sticks. As for Utah, given the rest of their offensive line outside of Poutasi and their lesser talent at running back, they will have far more problems finding consistent offense.

The Pick: UCLA wins but Utah covers the spread, 31-27.

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