No. 18 UCLA hosts No. 11 Utah in another spotlight game

Dorian Thompson-Robinson knows there is a “wonderful taste” in the mouths of everyone on the UCLA football program. After beating No. 15 Washington last week and earning a spot in the AP Top 25 rankings for the first time, the other undefeated program in Los Angeles is getting some recognition.

On Saturday at the Rose Bowl, No. 11 Utah (4-1, 2-0 Pac-12) can quickly turn that taste into a bitter one.

“You get it, but it can be taken away from you real quick,” Thompson-Robinson said on the spotlight. “Utah is a very good team. They’re a team that can come in here and take it from us.”

In the midst of a grueling stretch of facing three top-15 teams in a row, No. 18 UCLA (5-0, 2-0 Pac-12) passed the first test with a 40-32 win over Washington last week.

But there is little time for a letdown.

After facing the Utes on Saturday, the Bruins travel to Eugene following a bye week to take on No. 12 Oregon. In order for that game to have maximum implications, UCLA must take down another formidable Pac-12 foe at home.

“We try to treat it like we haven’t won any games,” Bruins wide receiver Kam Brown said. “Because you got to reset that clock.”

Unlike Washington, which outperformed preseason expectations, Utah was ranked No. 7 preseason and projected to be the Pac-12’s best chance at a College Football Playoff bid. That could have changed after a season-opening loss at Florida, but the Utes have since responded with four consecutive wins by an average of 35 points to creep back into contention.

The Bruins will look to spoil the Utes’ rebound – and continue to announce their presence in the national spotlight in the process.

When UCLA has the ball

Thompson-Robinson and the Bruins’ offense dropped nearly 500 total yards on Washington, shredding the Huskies’ secondary while Zach Charbonnet had another 100-yard rushing performance.

To replicate that outing against Utah’s physical defense would truly establish UCLA’s offense – which is eighth in the nation in total offense at 506.5 yards per game – as one of the best in college football. The Utes have the Pac-12’s stingiest defense, allowing an average of 14.4 points and 278.6 yards per game, and the best passing defense in the conference.

Fresh off being honored as the Pac-12’s Offensive Player of the Week, Thompson-Robinson will face his biggest test yet. Of the few games the quarterback circled on the schedule before the season, Utah was one of them.

Thompson-Robinson has yet to beat the Utes in his five-year career, though he hasn’t faced them since 2019 – a 49-3 blowout at Rice-Eccles Stadium. The 2020 matchup was canceled during the COVID-shortened season and Thompson-Robinson was injured for last year’s game.

“We came in their place and (they) kicked my butt around a few times,” Thompson-Robinson said. “That’s the last taste I have in my mouth.”

UCLA coach Chip Kelly called Utah “as good a defense as we’ll face all year.” The Utes have forced a turnover in seven consecutive games, including four interceptions in their 42-16 win over Oregon State last week. Three of them were by cornerback Clark Phillips III, who went to La Habra High School and was an All-Pac-12 pick last year.

Utah’s nine interceptions ranks second among Power Five teams and its 12 forced turnovers is ninth in the FBS. UCLA has not turned the ball over in two conference games.

“They really understand their system,” Kelly said. “It’s been in place for a really, really long time, so we’ve got a big task on Saturday – our offense versus their defense.”

When Utah has the ball

For a defense that was up to the task against a dynamic Washington quarterback and offense last week, UCLA will have an equal – and possibly even greater – challenge Saturday.

Ventura native and Newbury Park High School alum Cameron Rising is the dual-threat engine behind Utah’s offense.

Rising, a junior who was named to the All-Pac-12 first team last year, leads the Pac-12 with a 87.5 quarterback rating, just ahead of Thompson-Robinson’s 86.2. Rising was 19 for 25 for 199 yards passing and three touchdowns while also leading the team with 73 rushing yards and another score. He had five completions of 15 or more yards and three rushes of 10 or more yards.

“Obviously he’s a savvy guy,” said UCLA linebacker Bo Calvert, an Oaks Christian alum who played against Rising in high school. “He knows football. He’s been playing for a long time. He’s good on his feet.”

Kelly said UCLA is wary of Utah’s ability to use multiple tight ends, though the Utes lost tight end Brant Kuithe – one of their top offensive weapons – for the season to an ACL tear during their 34-13 victory over Arizona State on Sept. 24.

Utah leads the Pac-12 in points per game (42.0) and time of possession at nearly 33 minutes per game. UCLA counters with the best rushing defense in the Pac-12, allowing 80.4 yards per game.

The Utes also don’t allow many sacks, giving up 0.60 per game to rank third in the Pac-12.

“There’s gonna be a lot of motions, a lot of shifts, a lot of things that can distract your eye discipline,” Kelly said. “You think the ball’s going here but it’s going back over there.”

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The Utes are defending Pac-12 champions for a reason, according to Kelly. They excel at all three phases of the game. It’ll be an opportunity to follow-up on one of the biggest wins of the Kelly era with perhaps the biggest.

Thompson-Robinson said: “We’re trying to get something way bigger than ourselves, and trying to put on for this program and put it back on the national spotlight.”

UCLA (5-0, 2-0 Pac-12) vs. Utah (4-1, 2-0 Pac-12)

When: 12:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Rose Bowl

TV/Radio: ESPN, AM 570

Line: Utah by 3.5