UCLA Football Preview: Utah's Defense Not Up to Usual Standard
The Bruins will need to run the ball well against the Utes in order to win tonight.
Let’s start with a statement: Utah’s defense is fine. In fact, I’d probably still go so far as to say this is the best total defense in the Pac-12. But, on a national level, this defense is just average and compared to the defenses from Utah’s past, this is a huge step down in quality. The defense ranks 36th in the country by SP+, which I must point out UCLA would kill for, but has had some very un-Utah-like struggles. Let’s take a look at the Utes’ defense and break down how UCLA can find success.
Maybe the most surprising thing about Utah so far this year is that they are struggling to defend against the run. Part of it likely has to do with a defensive line that lost some big stars early in the season, with major contributors Maxs Tupai and Viane Moala both out for the year. That’s caused some shuffling along the lines, and likely is contributing to a weaker job against the rush.
That said, this defensive line does an excellent job of generating a pass rush, and that starts with defensive end Mike Tafua. Tafua leads the team in sacks with 5.5 and is second on the team in tackles for loss with 7.5. He’s flanked on the opposite side by freshman Van Fillinger, who has thrown in three sacks and four tackles for loss. The interior has seen a rotation of guys, with the main ones being Devin Kaufusi and Junior Tafuna. The interior can get pushed around, as was seen last week when the Utes lost to Oregon State.
The biggest name here, and also the best player on the defense, is Devin Lloyd. Lloyd leads the team in tackles (69), tackles for loss (13), and interceptions (two), while also being second on the team with four sacks. The Bruins are going to catch a break here, as Lloyd will be out for the first half of this game due to a targeting penalty he received in the second half of last week, and if I was the UCLA offensive staff, I would make sure I’m doing everything I can to take advantage of that fact.
There’s a solid drop-off after Lloyd. Nephi Sewell is the other main linebacker, and he’s been fine as a complement to Lloyd but isn’t a player that should scare the Bruins. Josh Calvert, the brother of UCLA linebacker Bo Calvert, or Karene Reid should see more play in the first half to try and cover for Lloyd’s absence, but both are freshmen that can and probably should be attacked.
Before we get into anything else, we need to acknowledge the tragedy that still affects this team. Utah cornerback Aaron Lowe was shot and killed at a party in Salt Lake City back on September 26. Lowe was a team leader and solid contributor to the defense, and it’s hard to quantify what his loss has done to this unit. Utah will be retiring his number 22 on Saturday, a number he shared with friend Ty Jordan, another Utah player who was also tragically killed in an accidental shooting last December. Our thoughts remain with the Utah community during this time.
Utah’s pass defense is their strength, and while they’ve been able to generate a solid pass rush, it’s the play of the secondary that has done the most here. Clark Phillips has emerged as an excellent cover corner, with six passes defended and one interception on the season. Across from him is freshman Faybian Marks, who has done an admirable job in the role. At safety, the Utes implement a solid combination of Brandon McKinney (second on the team in tackles) and Vonte Davis.
I’m going to shamelessly rip off a bit from the college football podcast Split Zone Duo and use the phrases “I think, I know” to discuss the UCLA offense against this defense. And in this case, there is a lot of “I think” happening here. For example, I think UCLA should be able to run the ball against Utah. They struggled to do so against Oregon, but Utah’s defensive line is a step down from Oregon’s in talent and ability. Similarly, I think UCLA will struggle to pass the ball in this game, and that’s even without knowing if Dorian Thompson-Robinson will be healthy enough to start or if Ethan Garbers will be getting his first start in a tough road environment.
In either case, UCLA absolutely will need to ride their run game in this one for a few reasons. One, it’s the best course of action when searching for offensive success against Utah. Two, and maybe more importantly, successfully running the ball shortens the game, meaning the UCLA defense will see the field less. Utah’s offense has improved since putting Cam Rising in at quarterback, and UCLA’s defense is awful. So, if the Bruins can limit the number of possessions Utah has in this game and be efficient on offense, it could give them a chance at victory.