SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Three games match two ranked Pac-12 teams on Saturday, with one taking a noticeable backseat to the others.
No. 11 Utah and No. 22 UCLA have largely stayed out of the spotlight compared to other Top 25 showdowns between No. 19 Colorado and No. 10 Oregon and between No. 14 Oregon State and No. 21 Washington State.
Lurking in the shadows hasn’t lessened the stakes ahead for either the Utes or the Bruins.
Utah (3-0) sits on the cusp of a top 10 ranking after earning victories over No. 25 Florida and Baylor. The Utes have stayed unbeaten while battling a slew of injuries at virtually every position. They have relied on a smothering defense to produce wins even while missing key offensive playmakers like Cameron Rising and Brant Kuithe.
Utah has allowed three total touchdowns in three games. The Utes rank second among Pac-12 teams in total defense (270.7 ypg) and scoring defense (10.3 ppg).
“We got a lot of confidence in the defense, and that does play into how we’re approaching offense,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said.
Injury-related attrition has not diminished what a win over Utah would mean for opponents looking to knock the Utes from their perch atop the Pac-12.
“It’s easy to get to the top. It’s hard to stay there,” running back Ja’Quinden Jackson said. “I definitely feel like we’ve got a target on our backs because we’re the two-time defending champions.”
UCLA (3-0) nearly prevented the Utes from a title repeat last season after claiming a 42-32 victory to snap a five-game losing streak in the series. The Bruins churned out 203 rushing yards and averaged 8.2 yards per play while forcing two turnovers.
UCLA could give Utah plenty of problems again. The Bruins top the Pac-12 in rushing offense (270.3 ypg), scoring defense (10.0 ppg) and passes intercepted (six). Still, they haven’t won in Salt Lake City since 2015 and aren’t taking anything for granted.
“I don’t think overconfident comes into any conversation when you’re playing Utah,” UCLA coach Chip Kelly said. “I don’t think that word exists when you’re playing this team.”
STIFLING THE RUN
Stopping teams from moving the chains on running plays is an area of strength for both Utah and UCLA. The Utes lead the Pac-12 in rushing defense, allowing 65.0 yards per game. The Bruins rank second in that category, yielding 69.67 yards per contest.
Utah’s success in stopping the run has translated to also leading Pac-12 teams in first downs defense (36) and third down conversion defense (20.00%).
“We’re not going to have to score 40 points most weeks to win,” Whittingham said. “The defense has done a nice job of keeping teams out of the end zone and points off the board.”
FRESHMAN QB BATTLE
With Rising still a game-time decision for Utah, a pair of freshman quarterbacks could potentially take center stage Saturday.
Nate Johnson earned his first career start in Utah’s 31-7 win over Weber State. Johnson threw for a career-high 193 yards and a touchdown while completing 62% of his passes. He added 71 yards and a touchdown on the ground against the Wildcats.
“The coaches trusted me with the offense, and they gave me a chance to show what I can do,” Johnson said.
Dante Moore hasn’t missed a beat in two starts for UCLA. Moore has racked up 472 yards and five touchdowns through the air in those games, while completing 64% of his passes. He leads the nation with 19.22 yards per completion.
Moore is trying to become the first freshman quarterback to beat Utah at Rice-Eccles Stadium since former Oregon QB Justin Herbert in 2016.
“Being able to go to Utah, I’m excited to see what Dante can do,” Bruins receiver Logan Loya said. “I have full faith in him. I believe he is ready for anything we throw at him.”
Special teams are living up to their name at Utah again when it comes to punting. The Utes lead the Pac-12 in net punting (44.54). Jack Bouwmeester has punted 13 times over Utah’s first three games. Six of Bouwmeester’s punts traveled 50 yards or farther. Seven punts landed inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.
UCLA has made a habit of repeatedly forcing turnovers early in the season. The Bruins have accumulated eight takeaways in three games — six interceptions and two fumbles. They rank in the top 10 among Football Bowl Subdivision teams in turnovers gained.
Success in forcing turnovers has helped UCLA keep opponents out of the end zone for long stretches. North Carolina Central went scoreless over its first 11 possessions against the Bruins. Coastal Carolina did not score over its final six drives, and San Diego State went scoreless on its final eight possessions.
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll