SALT LAKE CITY — UCLA coach Chip Kelly gave a direct answer when asked what he liked about how his team has played the past couple of weeks.
“Points scored, points against,” he said as the Bruins prepared for Friday night’s game against Utah at the Rose Bowl.
After opening the season with losses to Cincinnati (26-17), Oklahoma (49-21), Fresno State (38-14), Colorado (38-16) and Washington (31-24), UCLA has since posted victories over California (37-7) and Arizona (31-30).
At 2-5 overall and 2-2 in Pac-12 play, the Bruins have suddenly found a spark in their first season under Kelly, who was 46-7 at Oregon from 2009-12.
Despite the win differential, there are similarities in terms of offensive scheme. "Quite a bit. He is just getting it implemented and getting it started and I am sure it will continue to get closer to what he wants it to be,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “The basics are there. He plays with tempo and the formations are very similar."
In last week’s victory over Arizona, UCLA racked up a season-high 460 yards and ran 82 plays. The defense had three takeaways, reaching 13 on the year — already matching how many the Bruins had in all of 2017.
Could UCLA be peaking? Don't ask Kelly. The Bruins are working on the task at hand.
“We don’t look really back very much,” he said. “If we look back we’ll get crushed by Utah.”
Immediately after the Arizona game, Kelly said they broke things down in preparation for the Utes. He noted that it was their sole focus.
“You turn the Utah tape on and that gets your attention,” Kelly said.
Utah, he continued, doesn’t have a lot of flaws and has an outstanding offense, defense and special teams with really talented players in all positions.
“We’ve got to be prepared in all three phases,” Kelly added.
Although UCLA has scored 68 points over its past two games, the Bruins still rank last in the Pac-12 in passing offense (203.6 ypg), total offense (354 ypg) and scoring offense (22.9 ppg).
There’s uncertainty at quarterback this week with freshman starter Dorian Thompson-Robinson considered questionable with an upper-body injury. Earlier in the week, Kelly said Thompson-Robinson was “good to go.” However, there are reports that Wilton Speight might be the guy to face the Utes. The graduate transfer from Michigan threw two touchdown passes against Arizona after stepping in for Thompson-Robinson.
"Speight is the guy we saw at Michigan several years back. He is a big kid, 6-6, more of a pocket guy. And then the freshman is more of a dual threat. A Chip Kelly offense is traditionally a run-first offense,” Whittingham said. “He really had that going on Oregon, they just ran the ball up and down the field and were averaging like 300 yards a game. We don't know who is going to play though, so we will prepare for both of them."
The quarterbacks have weapons at their disposal. Running back Joshua Kelley has rushed for more than 100 yards in four straight games, while wide receiver Theo Howard has caught passes in 23 consecutive games.
On the local front, there’s another junior to watch in offensive lineman Andre James. The Herriman High graduate has made 27 straight starts for the Bruins.
Like the offense, UCLA’s defense also ranks in the lower half of the Pac-12. The Bruins are 10th against the run (192.7 ypg) and in total defense (425.4 ypg). They’re 11th in scoring defense (31.3 ppg).
Headliners include junior linebacker Keisean Lucier-South, who has two fumble recoveries, and senior safety Adarius Pickett, who averages 11 tackles per game. Sophomore defensive back Darnay Holmes had three interceptions last season and is a skilled return specialist.
UCLA’s special team players of note include junior kicker J.J. Molson and senior punter Stefan Flintoft, who rank among national leaders.
Utah (5-2, 3-2) at UCLA (2-5, 2-2)
Rose Bowl — Pasadena, Calif.
Friday, 8:30 p.m. (MT)
Radio: ESPN 700AM