No. 22 UCLA looking to dent No. 11 Utah’s defense

Field Level Media

September 19, 2023 at 5:51 pm.

With starting quarterback Cameron Rising sidelined as he continues to recover from a torn ACL, No. 11 Utah has had to rely on its defense through the first three weeks of the season.

That unit has held its own so far, but it will face its biggest challenge Saturday when the Utes face No. 22 UCLA in Salt Lake City in the Pac-12 opener for both teams.

Utah (3-0) ranks 17th in total defense in the FBS — an average of 270.7 yards allowed per game — after a suffocating performance in last weekend’s 31-7 victory over Weber State. The Utes held the Wildcats to 127 yards of total offense while coming away with a pair of turnovers.

“We got a lot of confidence in that defense, and they’ve performed very well through three games,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “We know that we’re not gonna have to score … 40 points to win.

“The defense has done a nice job of keeping teams out of the end zone and points off the board.”

But now the Utes will be tasked with slowing a high-octane Bruins offense that just racked 614 total yards in a 59-7 drubbing of North Carolina Central last Saturday.

The Bruins (3-0) got a pair of touchdowns and 182 yards on 8-of-12 passing from Dante Moore, but they did most of their damage on the ground, as five players rushed for at least 60 yards and a score. Anthony Adkins led the pack with 96 yards on 10 carries.

UCLA will look to replicate that performance as it attempts to win at Rice-Eccles Stadium for the first time since 2015.

“Rice-Eccles is a difficult venue. They got a great home-crowd advantage,” Bruins coach Chip Kelly said. “I think winning on the road in the Pac-12 is difficult anywhere.

“But I think the crowd in Utah is awesome. They have great support for their football program, and they’re a really good team and they’re really well-coached.”

If Rising is able to make his season debut, that atmosphere will be even more intense, but if he doesn’t, Nate Johnson will be under center. Johnson got his first collegiate start against Weber State, completing 13 of 21 passes for 193 yards and a TD. He also rushed for a team-high 71 yards and a score.

Kelly knows his team has to be prepared for whatever Utah throws its way.

“There’s probably a little bit more quarterback-driven run when Nate’s in there, but that doesn’t mean Cam can’t. Cam’s beaten a lot of teams with his legs too,” Kelly said. “Their offense is their offense; you gotta prepare for it all.”

Whittingham hopes his team can stay on an even keel as conference play begins.

“Every week’s the same to me. Every game counts the same, every game is darn important,” Whittingham said. “I think that’s been one of our strengths through the years, is to not get on the roller coaster, just be at a high level every week and prepare the same way.”