No laughing matter: Stakes are high as No. 11 Utah visits No. 18 UCLA in Pac-12 showdown
UCLA has lost five consecutive games against the Utes, but the Bruins are also 5-0 for the first time since 2013
LOS ANGELES — With each passing week, the stakes get higher.
For No. 11 Utah, which is looking to repeat as Pac-12 champions, a win Saturday (1:30 p.m. MDT, Fox) against No. 18 UCLA at the Rose Bowl would be a big step toward another conference title — and perhaps another trip to Pasadena and the Rose Bowl on Jan. 2, 2023.
“We know we beat Washington last week because of our preparation during the week. We know if we’re going to beat Utah, it’s going to be because of our preparation during the week. Things don’t just happen to you, hope isn’t a strategy.” — UCLA coach Chip Kelly
But, of course, the Utes aren’t taking a big-picture approach. For now, it’s all about the Bruins.
“You don’t want to look at it that way but you know in the back of your head that each week is getting bigger and bigger because you look at the schedule and you look at the opponent and you look at what they’ve done,” said Ute running back Micah Bernard. “You can see it. But if you want to be a great team, it doesn’t matter who you play. You have to play your game.”
UCLA, meanwhile, is seeking its first Pac-12 crown since 1998.
In past seasons, coach Chip Kelly’s teams has had high expectations, only to falter.
Last year, neither Utah nor UCLA were ranked when they met at Rice-Eccles Stadium. The Utes won 44-24 and ended up capturing the Pac-12 championship.
Can the Bruins, who beat previously undefeated Washington last week and jumped into the rankings for the first time this season, take advantage of this opportunity against the defending Pac-12 champs?
“That’s the golden question, that’s what we’re here to find out during this week. That’s part of the whole thing. The ranking’s good and I think it’s good for those guys and they should be proud of that, but after you’re ranked, there’s really nothing else,” Kelly said this week. “You don’t get a trophy, you don’t get something handed to you, you gotta go back to work.
“We know we beat Washington last week because of our preparation during the week. We know if we’re going to beat Utah, it’s going to be because of our preparation during the week. Things don’t just happen to you, hope isn’t a strategy. You gotta put the work in; so far these guys have done that.
“So we’ll see how the tides have turned a little bit from that standpoint, but we’re not the highest-ranked team in this game, we’re playing against a higher-ranked team and the defending champs in the conference. So I think that’s got everybody’s attention.”
Five games into the season, coach Kyle Whittingham likes the steady improvement his team, which is riding a four-game winning streak, has made.
“I think we’ve gotten better each week since Week 1. We’ve talked about how we didn’t play our best football in Week 1,” he said. “We’ve taken a step forward every single week, this past week included. If you want to try to win a championship, that’s got to happen. You’ve got to be able to be on that upward trajectory from Game 1 to Game 12.”
“We’ve done good,” said quarterback Cam Rising. “I mean, we dropped one (game) so that’s not something you ever want to have. We’ve got to keep the ball rolling. We’ve got to keep getting better. That’s the main goal, really.”
Saturday marks Utah’s second game without star tight end Brant Kuithe. Last week against Oregon State, Rising completed passes to eight different receivers — completing 19 of 25 passes for 199 yards and three touchdowns.
“I feel like his biggest growth in my opinion is sharing the wealth. I feel like he’s going through his reads a lot more. He’s getting a lot more guys involved,” receiver Devaughn Vele said about Rising. “That’s something that helps offenses thrive when everybody is getting involved. We’re always running our routes because we’re expecting the ball to come to us, not because we know he’s going to go here but because it’s where it’s supposed to go.”
Rising rushed seven times for 73 yards and a TD against the Beavers.
“And him running the ball, some of the moves he’s making, he’s looking like a running back out there,” Vele said. “It’s very impressive to see him not only throw the ball well, and play it smart as well, but also running the ball effectively.”
Vele said the Utes have progressed since the season-opening setback at Florida.
“We’re just making sure we’re doing what we’ve got to do. Obviously, the Week 1 loss was a tough one. We wish we could get that game back. We definitely learned a lot from it,” he said. “The past four weeks, we’ve learned what our identity as an offense is and then dealing with adversity with losing (tight end) Brant (Kuithe) and understanding that guys gotta step up. It’s coming together offensively especially. It helps a lot when the defense is doing good as well.”
Defensively, UCLA’s offense poses a difficult challenge with playmakers like quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, running back Zach Charbonnet and wide receiver Jake Bobo.
“We’ve got to try to keep the quarterback contained and from extending plays,” Whittingham said. “He’s really dangerous when he extends plays and gets out in the open, either throwing the ball on the run or tucking it and running it himself. We have to keep him contained the best we can.”
“DTR has gotten a lot better. He’s making more accurate throws and he’s completing more passes,” said Utes defensive back Zemaiah Vaughn. “He was already good in the run game. They’re a good team. We’re not going to (overlook) them.”
Whittingham noted that Kelly’s offense has a lot of weapons and some wrinkles.
“Chip’s got his own unique style of doing things. They run a lot of the same base plays that some other teams run but he’s got his stamp on it each week. Their quarterback is playing exceptionally well,” Whittingham said. “Their offensive line is rock-solid. Their big receiver is a tough matchup. Their running back is talented — big, fast, strong. Defensively, they have a lot of athletes and they run hard and play good football on that side of the ball. Right now, they’re a complete team. They’re scoring over 40 a week and they’re 500 yards of total (offense) a week.”
UCLA has lost five consecutive games against the Utes. But the Bruins are 5-0 for the first time since 2013.
“They’ve got a lot going for them and it’s easy to see why they’re undefeated at this point,” Whittingham said about UCLA.
Each week, the stakes keep getting higher.
Utes on the air
No. 11 Utah (4-1, 2-0)
at No. 18 UCLA (5-0, 2-0)
Saturday, 1:30 p.m. MDT
Radio: ESPN 700