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‘He’ll be outstanding’: Utah’s defense ready to give UCLA freshman QB Dante Moore his first test

Utah’s defense enters Saturday’s game with confidence, and it should.

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UCLA quarterback Dante Moore passes

UCLA quarterback Dante Moore passes during game against North Carolina Central Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023, in Pasadena, Calif.

Mark J. Terrill, Associated Press

A season ago, No. 11-ranked Utah went into a matchup against No. 18 UCLA at the Rose Bowl with its defense riding high. After a poor showing in a loss to Florida to open the 2022 season, the defense rebounded nicely, holding its next four opponents — Southern Utah, San Diego State, Arizona State and Oregon State — to a combined 43 points.

Utah rode its four-game win streak into Los Angeles, having dispatched Oregon State 42-16 the week before, with all of the confidence in the world.

“He already is really good, but he’s really, really good as time goes on. — Utah coach Kyle Whittingham on UCLA QB Dante Moore

In a 42-32 loss to the Bruins, the Utes got “outphysicaled,” which normally does not happen to Utah.

Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson threw for 299 yards and four touchdowns and Zach Charbonnet rushed for 198 yards in a very uncharacteristic outing for Utah’s vaunted defense.

“I mean they definitely outphysicaled us last year and that was definitely embarrassing,” Utah defensive end Jonah Elliss said.

A little bit of the same lead-up approaches on Saturday, when the No. 11 Utes and No. 22 Bruins meet at Rice-Eccles Stadium in a Pac-12 opener.

Utah’s defense again enters the matchup with confidence, and it should. It has largely been phenomenal in a 3-0 start, including wins against two Power Five opponents where the offense has sputtered without starting quarterback Cam Rising.

Utah is tied for ninth in the nation in fewest points allowed (10.3), second in the country in opponent third-down conversion percentage (20%) and tied for third fewest allowed opponent first downs (36 though three games). They’re also No. 10 in the NCAA in opponent rushing yards per game (65).

This all coming with an injury-riddled defense that has been missing these key players for at least one game: defensive tackle Junior Tafuna, defensive tackle Simote Pepa (yet to play this year), defensive end Connor O’Toole (yet to play this year), cornerback JaTravis Broughton and linebacker Karene Reid.

Utah is allowing 205 passing yards per game (No. 60 in college football), thanks to a 333-yard performance from Florida’s Graham Mertz and 218 yards from Baylor’s Sawyer Robertson, but the numbers were largely empty thanks to takeaways and strong red-zone defense.

Still, the Utes will look to get that pass defense tightened up as much as possible as they enter Pac-12 play with a league full of great quarterbacks — USC’s Caleb Williams, Washington’s Michael Penix Jr., Oregon’s Bo Nix and Colorado’s Shedeur Sanders, just to name a few.

UCLA hasn’t faced the stiffest competition on the way to its 3-0 start (the Bruins have wins over Coastal Carolina, San Diego State and North Carolina Central), but freshman quarterback Dante Moore has been impressive so far.

He’s thrown for 615 yards, seven touchdowns and one interception with a completion percentage of 62.7% and has a passer rating of 205.4.

The five-star quarterback originally committed to Oregon before flipping to UCLA.

“He’ll be outstanding. He already is really good, but he’s really, really good as time goes on,” Whittingham said.

Moore is following in the footsteps of Thompson-Robinson, who was a five-year starter for the Bruins, and threw for 3,169 yards in his final season at UCLA.

“Same approach they took with Dorian Thompson-Robinson, started him early and just groomed him and just gave him all the reps and let him be the guy,” Whitingham said. “A little bit different player than Dorian, not quite as much of a runner, but he’s a really good player like I said, and he’s going to be, already is, productive. He’s going to be outstanding before it’s all over with.”

As Whittingham points out, Moore is not a big rushing threat when compared to Thompson-Robinson, who rushed for 1,826 yards in his career. So far, Moore has rushed for -2 yards.


Utes on the air

No. 11 Utah (3-0)
vs. No. 22 UCLA (3-0)
Saturday, 1:30 p.m. MDT
Rice-Eccles Stadium
TV: Fox
Radio: ESPN 700/92.1 FM

Moore’s favorite target has been J. Michael Sturdivant, who transferred from Cal this offseason. Sturdivant has nine catches for 219 yards, while Logan Loya has seven for 114 yards.

Running back Carson Steele has toted the ball 30 times for 243 yards, while TJ Harden has carried it 25 times for 233 yards. Both have two touchdowns. Steele adds seven receptions for 50 yards.

Playing Utah at Rice-Eccles Stadium, a place where the Utes haven’t lost since 2020, will be the first real test of Moore’s young career.

“... They like to run that ball and make it easy for that young quarterback. So we’re getting ready to stop the run and get after the run,” Utah defensive tackles coach Luther Elliss said.


UCLA running back Carson Steele carries the ball against North Carolina Central Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023, in Pasadena, Calif. Steele has carried the ball 30 times for 243 yards this season, and is also a threat catching the ball out of the backfield.

Mark J. Terrill, Associated Press