SALT LAKE CITY — Utah has started out 0-4 in Pac-12 play both years since joining the conference in 2011.
And after falling to 0-1 in conference play with a heartbreaking 51-48 overtime loss to Oregon State, the Utes now face an uphill battle that just seems outright daunting on paper — with four of their next six opponents ranked in the Top 25.
Well, as we all know, the games aren't played on paper. Which is probably a good thing, considering the Utes might not be favored in more than one or two games the rest of the way in their hunt to return to a bowl game.
Thursday the Utes welcome in the No. 12 UCLA Bruins into Rice-Eccles Stadium in a nationally televised broadcast (Fox Sports 1).
Here are five keys for the Utes to knock off the Bruins and pick up their first signature Pac-12 win:
Keys to the Game: Utes
1. Keep QB "in the cage"
When the Utes faced the Bruins in Pasadena last season, UCLA QB Brett Hundley seemingly ran all over the Utah defense, especially on third downs. Facing third and 10, 12, sometimes even 18 yards, Hundley would scramble out of the pocket to pick up huge gains on the ground to keep the Bruin offense on the field. UCLA finished 10-17 on third downs, providing just enough offense to hold on for a 21-14 win.
"Defensively, we've got to do a better job of keeping Hundley -- when you relate back to last year -- in the cage. He escaped far too many times, predominantly on third down, so we have got to do a better job with our pass rush and our spacing within those lanes," Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said.
2. Control the line of scrimmage
It doesn't matter how good your quarterback is - if your offensive line can't block for more than two seconds, it is going to be hard for anyone to have a good offensive showing.
So far the Utes have done a pretty good job controlling the line on offense, with the lone exception being the first quarter against Oregon State. If the big bruisers up front can open up running lanes for Bubba Poole and Kelvin York, the Utes are bound to improve on their 1-14 3rd down performance against BYU last game. As the saying goes, the best defense is a good offense, and keeping the Bruins prolific offense on the bench is a good thing.
Defensively, putting pressure on Hundley to rush his reads will be key. Hundley has a tendency to hang on to the football a few seconds too long, which could end up in sacks and/or forced throws into traffic. The Utes have only picked off one pass so far in 2013, something that Coach Whittingham hopes to see more of.
"I think it starts at the line of scrimmage like it does most weeks. If our defensive line can do a good job putting pressure on the quarterback like we have done so far this season -- we're second in the league in sacks, first in the league in sacks per game. And that goes for both sides of the ball. Offensively we need to protect Travis (Wilson) and open some holes for the run game. I think most weeks that is the key matchup, and I don't see that being any different," Whittingham added.
3. Home Sweet Home? Or is it?
Remember when the Utes had a 21 game win streak from 2007-2010? Ah, the good old days.
Against their new Pac-12 conference foes, the Utes are just 4-6 at Rice-Eccles Stadium since 2011.
"We want to make Rice-Eccles a place that is very tough for our opponents to come in and play. We've got to do our best to get that corrected," Whittingham stated.
While the competition level has undoubtedly gone up, the Utes have also improved, with three-fourths of their recruiting classes the past couple seasons due to their inclusion in the Pac-12. On paper, this year's roster is the best it has ever been, and it is time to the Utes to prove that out on the field against the highest level of competition west of the Mississippi.
The best place to get one of these signature Pac-12 wins is at home. Don't let another team come into your house and push you around. Considering that this is the annual Blackout game, the atmosphere in Rice-Eccles will be electric.
"We must protect this house!" Sorry, couldn't resist.
4. Protect the football
Raise your hand if you cringe every time an opposing team punts the football. Yep, its true — what normally is a good thing, signalling that your defense just made a stop, is turned into absolute panic as you tensely watch whether the punt returner can successfully field the high flying end over end kick.
The Utes have done a good job of playing relatively turnover free so far in 2013 — the lone exception again being against Oregon State. The Bruin offense doesn't need any handouts. It is perfectly capable of driving 80, 90 or even 99 yards down the field. The Utes don't need to shoot themselves in the foot with costly turnovers, especially deep in their own territory.
Last season against the Bruins, the Utes had an interception on their first possession of the game, costing them momentum and a chance at putting the first points on the board.
5. Win the 3rd Quarter
There might not be a team in the country that makes better halftime adjustments than UCLA. So far in 2013, the Bruins have outscored opponents 62-0 in the third quarter. You read that right, 62-0.
Just ask Nebraska. The Cornhuskers held a 21-3 lead at one point - while at home - during the second quarter. UCLA's offense exploded after the break, scoring 28 points in the third quarter en route to a 41-21 win.
Statistically speaking, Utah's worst quarter is the third, where they hold a slight margin at 38-33.
If the Utes are able to jump out to an early lead, they will have to keep their foot on the throttle knowing that the Bruins can score, and score quickly at that.