Utah has chance to solidify hold on Pac-12 South facing UCLA
By JOHN COON
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) A well-rounded offense has helped Utah edge closer to the College Football Playoff picture.
The eighth-ranked Utes, who are seventh in the CFP rankings, have run off five straight victories and are a game ahead of UCLA and USC atop the Pac-12 South. Utah gets a chance to solidify its position when it hosts the Bruins on Saturday.
The Utes (8-1, 5-1 Pac-12) have leaned almost exclusively on an elite defense and dominant running game as a formula for success in the past. This season, Utah has added an efficient passing attack to the mix.
The Utes lead the Pac-12 in passing yards per completion (14.04), quarterback completion percentage (.732) and passing efficiency (177.53).
It all starts with senior quarterback Tyler Huntley and his ability to pick apart a defense.
"It's unbelievable the way he reads defenses and actually tells us what's going on as we're running the routes," receiver Bryan Thompson said. "Sometimes I'll go to him and (ask), 'What coverage is that?' and then he'll let me know on the fly. It's unbelievable the way he dissects coverages and lets me know where I need to be, and I get there at the right time."
Huntley is getting consistent production from Thompson and his other receivers. Nine different Utah players have caught 10 or more passes this season. Huntley has thrown for at least 200 yards in seven games. He had 11 total 200-yard games over his first three seasons.
"They're doing a good job of knowing their plays and knowing what they're doing," Huntley said. "When you know what you're doing, you play confident."
The Bruins are making strides of their own on offense. UCLA (4-5, 4-2) has reeled off three straight wins behind a resurgent running game.
The Bruins are averaging 217.2 rushing yards per game against Pac-12 opponents. They are the only team eclipsing 200 rushing yards per contest in league games.
Joshua Kelley has rushed for at least 100 yards in four of his last five games. Kelley, who has 861 total rushing yards this season, leads the league with 107.6 rushing yards per game.
Bruins quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson credits the uptick in production to coach Chip Kelly simplifying the offense and identifying his players' strengths as the season has progressed.
"Now he knows what he has on offense, the type of playmakers he has and what they do well," Thompson-Robinson said. "That was really the big part, knowing what your guys do well. Now he's finally found that and is putting us in the best position to win now."
UCLA is averaging a league-best 37 points per game in Pac-12 play after averaging just 14.0 points in nonconference losses to Cincinnati, San Diego State, and Oklahoma.
LEADER OF THE PAC
Through nine games, the Utes lead the nation in rushing defense, allowing 56.0 yards per game and 2.45 yards per carry. Utah also tops the Pac-12 in total defense (246.3), scoring defense (12.2), third down conversion defense (.279), first downs defense (122), and passing yards allowed (190.3).
Utes coach Kyle Whittingham traces this domination across the board back to his team's ability to control the line of scrimmage.
"We pride ourselves on being physical and it starts with the run game and defending the run," Whittingham said. "That doesn't change year in and year out."
ISN'T THAT SPECIAL
A key special teams battle could influence who is able to gain an early edge.
The Bruins rank second among FBS teams in punt returns, averaging 22.5 yards per return. Kyle Phillips has ripped off three returns covering 30 or more yards this season. Meanwhile, Utah's punt coverage team has been stingy. The Utes are second in the Pac-12 in punt return defense, allowing 4.25 yards per return.
Utah's Zack Moss isn't just making an impact with his running prowess. Moss is also emerging as a reliable receiver. The senior has totaled 208 of his 215 receiving yards over Utah's last three games. He led the Utes in receiving with a season-high 89 yards on three catches in the team's 35-0 win over California.
BALL CONTROL BRUINS
UCLA's ability to control the ball has been improving. The Bruins have run an average of 81 plays over their last five games compared to 63.2 plays per game for their opponents.
In the last six games, UCLA is averaging 478.0 yards of total offense. The Bruins are gaining six yards per play against Pac-12 opponents after averaging 4.1 yards per play against nonconference opponents.
"We're executing at a better rate on the offensive side of the ball," Kelly said. "When you execute at a better rate on the offensive side of the ball, you hold on to the ball a little bit longer."
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Updated November 15, 2019