Just how good was Utah’s defensive performance Saturday afternoon?

The Utes’ defense pretty much singlehandedly won the game for the team as offensive struggles continued up on the hill.

Utah’s offense scored just seven points. A Karene Reid pick six on the first snap of the game provided the other score for the Utes.

Morgan Scalley’s defense didn’t get much help from the offense, but it was not a problem as they turned in a tremendous performance.

In a 14-7 win, Utah improved to 4-0 and notched its first win in Pac-12 play.

The defense has answered the bell every time through four games this season.

But big questions remain about Utah’s offense.

For the fourth-straight game, Utah held its opponent to under 14 points, a stretch that includes three Power Five teams — Florida, Baylor and UCLA.

There’s still a lot of football left to play this season, including big matchups against explosive offenses in USC, Oregon and Washington, but Utah’s defense has lived up to its preseason billing thus far.

In this day and age of college football, especially playing against the offenses in the Pac-12, it’s very hard to win when you put just 14 points on the scoreboard.

It took one of the better defensive performances in Utah history to preserve an undefeated record.

“It was as fine of a defensive performance as I’ve seen since I’ve been here, and that’s saying something,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said postgame on the Fox telecast.

Utah was close to handing the Bruins their first shutout since 2011 before a nine-play, 91-yard touchdown drive made a mundane offensive game interesting in the late fourth quarter.

On fourth-and-7 from UCLA’s 22-yard line, Dante Moore completed a 45-yard pass to Carsen Ryan to keep the drive alive. Three plays later, Moore found Josiah Norwood for a 17-yard touchdown pass and UCLA’s first points of the day with 3:39 left.

It wasn’t shocking that the Utes went three-and-out on the ensuing drive, leaving the fate of the game in their defense’s hands once again.

After just giving up a touchdown drive, Scalley’s group had to regroup and refocus as they trotted out on the field yet again, this time with the game in their hands.

“Just go choke them out. We had them on the ropes and go knock them out,” Whittingham told the defense prior to UCLA’s final drive.

Chip Kelly’s offense ran four plays. The first two ended in sacks of Moore by Jonah Elliss on first down and Elliss and Logan Fano on second down.

Moore kept hope alive with an 11-yard pass to Logan Loya on third down, setting up fourth-and-14 on the UCLA 14-yard line for the game.

Sione Vaki got to Moore this time, dropping him for a loss of seven to give Utah its first Pac-12 victory.

Utah sacked Moore seven times, forced him to fumble twice (Utah recovered one), and intercepted him once.

Rice-Eccles Stadium was a house of horrors for the freshman quarterback, who was 15 for 35 for 234 yards and a score.

“That’s a rough place to play and a tough defense to play against,” said Utah linebacker Karene Reid.

Reid set the tone for the freshman’s experience at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday afternoon on the first snap, reading the play like a book and picking Moore off for a 21-yard touchdown reminiscent of Lander Barton’s pick six last week. Both players read the quarterback the whole way.

Highlights, key plays and photos from No. 11 Utah’s narrow win over No. 22 UCLA
UCLA’s final trip to Rice-Eccles Stadium was a mistake-riddled one as the offense sputtered against the Utes

The Bruins didn’t play a tough schedule coming into Saturday’s contest — they’ve had wins over Coastal Carolina, San Diego State and North Carolina Central — but were putting up great offensive numbers.

UCLA was averaging 40.3 points and 527 yards of offense per game entering Rice-Eccles Stadium, and the team was going to the biggest test for Utah’s defense yet.

To recap the action on Saturday: UCLA scored seven points off 243 yards of total offense (including nine total rushing yards; Moore’s -51 yards on sacks contributed to that, but UCLA running backs T.J. Harden and Carson Steele combined for only 60 yards on 22 carries).

Utah was helped out by a few key drops and overthrows, including a drop that cost UCLA what looked like a sure touchdown.

Elliss had a monstrous game, totaling 3.5 sacks and five tackles for loss. Reid had the pick six and two pass breakups. Freshman defensive tackle Keanu Tanuvasa had the best game of his career with a sack and a forced fumble.

Again, there’s a lot of football left to be played against a lot of high-powered offenses, but Utah’s defense is playing at an elite level right now.

Reid called this year’s defense the best he’s played on.

“I would say it is the top defense I’ve been a part of because the talent’s always been here, but the depth has been crazy,” Reid said.

There’s a lot to be happy about if you’re a Utah fan. In spite of key injuries — including starting quarterback Cam Rising, who was out again on Saturday — a mostly inept offense and a tough schedule, the Utes are 4-0.

Before the season, if you told Utah fans the Utes would be 4-0 without Rising and tight end Brant Kuithe, alongside a host of other contributors, they’d have likely been thrilled.

The way Utah has won leaves a lot to be desired, but it counts the same, ugly or pretty. The Utes still have all of their goals in front of them.

To reach those goals, though, Utah needs a radical shift in its offensive production.

Putting aside the win over FCS opponent Weber State, Utah’s offense has scored 17 points per game against three Power Five opponents. It put up just seven points against UCLA.

Quarterback Nate Johnson, who started Saturday in Rising’s continued absence, has “access” to 75% of the playbook, meaning offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig is comfortable calling 75% of Utah’s offensive play sheet for Johnson.

Not that you could tell Saturday afternoon.

Utah ran the ball 48 times, throwing it just 17 times.

By the fourth quarter, there was some audible groaning by the 52,919 in attendance after another three-and-out featuring three runs.

The run game was hampered after Ja’Quinden Jackson, who has been dealing with an ankle injury the whole season, came up limping in the early second quarter and never returned.

Jaylon Glover was the only running back to carry the ball the rest of the game, toting it 25 times for 86 yards.

Utah’s running back situation is becoming dire if Jackson is not 100% or misses time. He’s clearly been Utah’s best back when he can play, but hasn’t been at full strength this season.

In Jackson’s absence, Glover would continue to be the featured back, and the team hopes to get Chris Curry back, but may have to start incorporating its freshman backs.

Whittingham said postgame that they will have to get freshman John Randle more involved if Jackson misses time.

The “throw game,” as Whittingham calls it, never really materialized.

UCLA was content to stack the box and stop the run.

“I feel like everything was just fine. We just kept shooting ourselves in the foot on a certain number of drives. Just got to clean up a lot of things on offense,” Johnson said.

Johnson was 9 for 17 for 117 yards and a touchdown, but lost a fumble. The redshirt freshman had a couple of nice throws, including passes of 22 and 35 yards to Devaughn Vele, and had nice patience and touch on the seven-yard touchdown pass to Landen King.

Utah’s game plan was to keep the ball on the ground. Johnson did have a few key throws moving the ball downfield, but all but one of the drives stalled out.

When he did drop back, Johnson pulled it down and ran more than a few times. He wasn’t helped by the pressure he faced by UCLA’s defensive line (Johnson was sacked four times).

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“Not real prolific numbers, but didn’t throw any interceptions and managed the game for us,” Whittingham said.

As they dive into a tough Pac-12 slate, with Oregon State in Corvallis up next on Friday night, Utah needs Rising back.

Barring that, Johnson and the Utah offense need to produce a lot more than they have.

Utah is 4-0, but big questions still surround the two-time defending Pac-12 champions.

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