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SALT LAKE CITY — A week after blowing out Arizona State 62-27 on the road, No. 8 UCLA returns home to welcome a deflated Utah team that lost 28-27 in a late-game defeat to Washington State.
Both programs appear to have taken divergent paths in last week’s games, with UCLA jumping into the top 10 and Utah dropping from top 25 considerations. But UCLA head coach Jim Mora said Utah, particularly the defense, will “be a real stern test for them” at home.
“This is an outstanding defense and an exceptional defensive front. And they use their linebackers very well in their pressure game,” Mora said. “I just think they do an outstanding job. I think they’re sound and they’re simple, but difficult because they play with so much certainty and with so much speed.”
Last season, Utah was able to put a lot of pressure on UCLA’s offensive line and quarterback Brett Hundley in a 34-27 loss. Utah linebacker Jared Norris and Jacoby Hale sacked Hundley for a combined three sacks. Cornerback Keith McGill also intercepted a pass from Hundley, which was returned for a 19-yard touchdown.
Utah’s poor offensive showing against Washington State, though, may make it difficult for the defense to have a similar impact in Saturday’s game. Despite throwing six interceptions against the Bruins last year, Travis Wilson and the offense were able to move the ball effectively to make it a close game.
But which Utah offense shows up is a bigger question entering Saturday’s game than how well Utah’s defense will be able to perform against a high-powered UCLA offense. Fortunately for Utah’s offense, UCLA’s defense looked penetrable against the Sun Devils.
Against Arizona State last week, the Bruins allowed 626 yards of total offense, with junior backup quarterback Mike Bercovici leading the charge for the Sun Devils. Bercovici threw for 488 yards and three touchdowns, but threw two interceptions, one of which was returned by UCLA’s Ishmael Adams for a 95-yard touchdown.
“You look at our yards from the other night, we didn’t play anywhere near what we want, what our standard is, what we’re capable of,” Mora said. “Sometimes you’re hanging on. I don’t like to do that at all, but sometimes you are.
“In every game there’s going to be plays where you get beat doing it right and then there’s going to be plays where you don’t execute or you don’t put players in the right spot,” Mora added. “The goal every week is to try to become more consistent at putting them in the right spot and them executing the right way.”
Despite UCLA’s defense allowing more than 600 yards of total offense, Mora is pleased with the performance of his team, and expects his players to be ready for Saturday’s game against Utah. But consistency is Mora’s goal as the season progresses.
I just think they do an outstanding job. I think they're sound and they're simple, but difficult because they play with so much certainty and with so much speed.
“For us, we’ve got to find more consistency because we’re not playing up to our capabilities right now,” he said. “And we’re not doing a good enough job of helping our players, and so that’s a big focus for us.”
Mora added that despite the huge win for the program last week, the team is focused on an “outstanding” Utah team, and hopes there is no letdown at home.
“We look at life as a week-to-week proposition. And it’s another opportunity for us to go play an outstanding team that has done some great things over the years. They had a tremendous win the last time they won on the road,” Mora said. “I think that if you do bring that (negative) stuff up sometimes it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy — you put bad things in their minds. For us it’s about grinding it out and getting better every day.”
Both programs feature a viable returner in Ishmael Adams and Kaelin Clay. Adams returned a kick 100 yards last week for a touchdown against the Sun Devils for his first returning touchdown of the season. Clay, however, has returned one kickoff for a touchdown and has three touchdowns on eight punt returns.
Although Mora said Clay is a “special” player, the game plan coming into Saturday is to kick to whoever is on the field for Utah.
“We kick off to whoever. We have one of the best kickoff coverage units in college football. We have not given up a single yard yet in four games on a punt return,” Mora said. “Now, this kid (Clay) is special, so I don’t know that we’ll be able to say that after this game. But we don’t really change what we do. We have tremendous, tremendous respect for him, I mean tremendous respect. But we don’t want to go too far away from what our core principles and foundation are.”