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SALT LAKE CITY — A week before a matchup against No. 7 Utah at Rice-Eccles Stadium, UCLA wideout Ethan Fernea made a comment to Los Angeles media that sparked a firestorm among a Utah program ready to claim its second consecutive Pac-12 South Division title.
“Utah’s known for being tough, but I think that we’re ready to go out and show that we’re the tougher team,” Fernea told reporters. “That’s one thing that we pride ourselves in throughout the offseason, every day in practice, being mentally tough. So, I’m looking forward to it.”
Although a simple comment you’d expect from a team looking to dethrone a Top 10 team in the country, it got Utah’s attention.
“Yeah, we watched it on a video right before we came over to the stadium,” Utah senior running back Zack Moss said, “so we knew what we wanted to do and come out here and prove today, so I think we did that.”
Senior defensive end Bradlee Anae said the comments were “in my ear all game.”
Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham offered a chuckle about the comment after the game but said the players didn’t make a big deal out of it, at least publicly.
“Yeah, our players were aware of that, for sure,” he said. “And I don't know how much it bothered them or amused them. I don't know. I can't tell you. But they knew and didn't make a huge deal of it, as far as you know, and the players responded well.”
But it was clear the players heard the message loud and clear and attacked UCLA with everything they had.
As a result, UCLA only managed a field goal in a 49-3 blowout and had five turnovers, including a 68-yard scoop-and-score touchdown by Mika Tafua after safety Julian Blackmon forced a fumble on UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, in the loss.
Thompson-Robinson spent much of the night scrambling against a Utah defense that wanted to see him in the dirt for much of the night. The sophomore quarterback was sacked five times, including two from Anae. Thompson-Robinson finished the night throwing for 219 yards on 20-of-36 passing in a game where he couldn’t get comfortable.
The UCLA offense was held to 269 total yards, and dynamic running back Joshua Kelley, who leads the conference in rushing yards, was held to only 78 rushing yards on the night. The Bruins’ net rushing total was only 50 yards due to Thompson-Robinson taking several sacks.
“I was excited when we heard that we were gonna be up first, and the whole D was excited, too,” Anae said about UCLA getting the ball first to start out the game. “We just laid one on them the first series and we figured out who was the more physical team this game.”
Brant Kuithe unlocked
Utah tight end Brant Kuithe couldn’t be contained by UCLA’s defense for much of the night. The true sophomore was a mismatch for the Bruins all night as Kuithe led the Utes with 132 receiving yards on five catches, including a 69-yard catch for a touchdown to start out the second half.
Kuithe made a small stutter step after the catch to escape a defender, and then it was off to the races and the 6-foot-2, 235-pound tight end trotted into the end zone.
“He's just tremendous athlete,” Whittingham said of Kuithe. “It's not anything we scripted differently, other than he just happened to shake free more often than he had in the past. He's played really good football for us all year long, but he's a tremendous weapon, and he's only a sophomore — a true sophomore — and he's a tough matchup.
“I don't know if teams know really how to account for him because he can't be covered by linebacker; and safeties, even safeties, struggle with him.”
Kuithe has 406 receiving yards and four touchdowns this season and is the team’s second-leading receiver.
Style points for the College Football Playoff picture
Style points? Utah’s never heard of them, or at least that’s what Whittingham said about Utah’s 46-point margin of victory over the Bruins. Sure, it helps to blowout teams while the playoff selection committee looks on, but the game just naturally developed into a high-scoring affair, Whittingham said.
“Never, never consider that,” Whittingham said. “That's something that we don't do, won't do; that's just how it is. We weren't trying to run it up tonight, and we pulled our guys and just start running the football. The reason we left the gas pedal down a little longer tonight is: I watched that Washington State-UCLA game a month ago or whatever, so it was when they came roaring back from down 32 late in the third quarter. That was the reason why we kept the throttle wide open for a little longer than usual.”
Moss said the team is just focused on itself and isn’t worried about building up its resume before the selection committee with style points.
“We just want to come out here and make sure that we put in our best efforts, making sure that we execute our plays Because it's not about the team that we're going against, it's about us,” he said. “So we make sure that we execute our plays to the best of our ability. Whatever we do on the offensive side of the ball, we put up points, that's what it is. We're not out here trying to run up scoreboards or anything like that.”