Let's face it, the Pac-12 South champion will have its work cut out for it in the Pac-12 championship game. We've already seen the North take care of business against the South in the early weeks of conference play, but one team has yet to start its Pac-12 schedule, and that is UCLA. The Bruins are probably the South's best shot at winning the Pac-12 championship game and after a picture perfect 3-0 start to the season, the Bruins will start their quest to reach their third consecutive conference title game tonight as they travel to Salt Lake City to take on Utah.
By the Numbers
At first glance, this game looks like a fairly obvious mismatch. UCLA's offense appears to be one of the most high flying units in the country, and their defense has been dominant when playing at its best. Utah, on the other hand, appears to have a good offense and a decent-to-mediocre defense. If we take a closer look at things statistically, this game might be one of the best potential shootouts the nation will get to see this season. Utah and UCLA are neck and neck in the yards per play statistic (7.37 and 7.26 respectively, good for the seventh and eighth ranked offenses nationally). Until UCLA faces Oregon (8.27 YPP, third in the nation) later in the month, there isn't a better opportunity to see two more explosive offenses on the same field anywhere. As per the usual in games featuring high octane offenses, the game will boil down to which defense will be able to force the most mistakes against two very fluid offensive systems.
Utah's run defense has been pretty impressive considering where it was expected to be after losing Star Lotulelei and Joe Kruger from the defensive front. In fact, Utah's run defense could technically be considered the conference's stingiest with a bit of statistical maneuvering. While Utah has allowed over 100 yards on the ground per game, they have limited opponents to just three yards per carry, good for best in the conference. That means that Utah has done a good job of limiting yards after contact and avoiding the demoralizing 25+ yard runs.
With such an effective run defense, its almost surprising to see Utah's defense right in the middle of the pack nationally with a 50th ranked defense at 5.16 yards allowed per play. That has to indicate that something must be up with Utah's pass defense.
Utah has had some mixed results against the pass. Against BYU a week ago, the Utes held their rivals down through the air, allowing the Cougars to complete just 18 of 48 passes. Part of that was lent to surprisingly solid defense from the Utes, and another part of that performance was lent to BYU being a bad passing team (ranked 105th in the country in passing yards per game). When Utah actually faced a good passing team in Oregon State a week before, Sean Mannion put up over 400 yards on the Utes. Chuckie Keeton of Utah State was also able to post 300+ yards against the Utes in week one, and UCLA will try to do the same to secure a victory tonight.
Getting to Hundley
To stop UCLA's passing game, the Utes will need to man up against UCLA's wide receivers, and find a way to get pressure on Brett Hundley. The Utah defensive front has already tallied 15 sacks on the season, but that number is a bit inflated thanks to seven sacks earned in their blowout of Weber State. Still though, Utah has the best defensive front UCLA has faced this season, and they will be dialing up pressure and mixed coverages all night to get to Hundley.
Applying pressure on Hundley is not as easy as it was last season. So far this season, the Bruin offensive line has allowed just five sacks for only nine total yards lost (1.8 yards lost per sack). That statistic is attributed to Hundley's improved awareness in the pocket, his knowledge of when to throw the ball away, and his vision to find running lanes against aggressive pass rushes. Nebraska had a bit of success early in the game when the Husker defense switched up coverages against Hundley and forced an easy interception off of a miscommunicated route. Taking that into account, Utah's best bet at stopping the UCLA passing game will be in mixing up zone and man coverages and surprising Hundley with zone blitzes in unexpected spots.
UCLA's defense, on the other hand, still has a few questions to be answered. That's mostly because they haven't gotten a real taste of the pass-happy Pac-12 offenses their young secondary will have to face for the rest of the season. Utah has some speedy receivers, and as showcased in the touchdown catch below, UCLA's green cornerbacks will have their biggest test to date against the Utes:
Utah's offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson, one of the leaders in the single-back offense's development, has been pulling pieces from other Pac-12 offenses together to make an interesting offensive scheme. The Utes will be using a very similar scheme to UCLA's, simply because Noel Mazzone's offense is derived from Erickson's. Mazzone mentioned that he learned most of his scheme while the two were together at ASU a few years ago and at Oregon State earlier in their careers. Erickson will do everything possible to get the ball into the hands of his playmakers and will try to simplify all reads for his quarterback Travis Wilson. The use of key motions will help Wilson read the aggressive UCLA defense and help the Utes spread the field quickly.
As shown in the GIF above, Utah will use crossing routes off of play action to try and catch UCLA being over-aggressive. If the Utes can find a way to move the ball on the ground against the UCLA front-seven, the Bruins will be forced to use more man coverage looks, giving more opportunities to the Utah playmakers out wide.
The Bruins will need to use their strengths to constrain the Utah offense. Speed and size are some of its biggest advantages, and getting to Wilson early and often will be the key for the UCLA defense to mask its deficiencies in pass defense. Utah did a good job limiting sure-fire NFL prospect Kyle Van Noy's impact in the BYU game and will need to do the same with the now #1 draft prospect Anthony Barr. Hopefully some of his supporting cast will take advantage of the attention that the Utes will be giving to Barr.
This game is far from a mismatch- UCLA will have its hands full against Utah on a Thursday night game in the "Muss." With wet conditions in store for the two spread offenses we probably won't be seeing crazy numbers on the scoreboard, but again, this game will boil down to which team's defense forces the most mistakes. Predicting the winner is not an easy call. Obviously logic points to UCLA having an edge thanks to their overall advantages in speed, talent, size, scheme, and momentum. However, UCLA hasn't even had an inkling of success in the state of Utah over their past visits to the Beehive State, and I think Utah's defense will force Brett Hundley into some tough spots throughout the game.
I think Utah will jump out to an early lead and UCLA will look bad in its few possessions. The Bruins will adjust in the second half and the game comes down to the wire.
UCLA escapes with a win 38-31.