No. 12 UCLA welcomes stiff road test at Utah
After sitting through two byes in the past four weeks, No. 12 UCLA is eager to get a little rhythm going in an otherwise harmonious season.
The Bruins (3-0) realize it could be tough to get back into a groove with their Pac-12 opener against Utah (3-1, 0-1) at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Thursday night.
UCLA coach Jim Mora isn't complaining about extra time off for his Bruins, who racked up a school-record 692 yards against New Mexico State before getting the past week off. But Mora realizes the Utes present an exponentially bigger challenge when UCLA visits a consistent contender in its high-altitude home.
''I feel like they understand the ramifications of the conference opener,'' Mora said of his players. ''Having a bye last week has helped us this week because school has started. I think we're in a good spot, but we've got to go up there and compete.''
The Utes are on the verge of an outstanding start to the season, and they're healthier after their own bye week following a gritty 20-13 victory over rival BYU.
Here are five reasons to watch UCLA go for its first 4-0 start since 2005:
PASSING EQUALS?: UCLA's offense has been remarkable in the first quarter of the season, with much of the credit going to sophomore quarterback Brett Hundley. Yet Utah coach Kyle Whittingham thinks Utah quarterback Travis Wilson might be the touted Hundley's equal. ''Their numbers are almost exact, when you compare the two as far as the throw game,'' Whittingham said. ''They're within a point or two of each other in pass efficiency. Hundley runs the ball well like Travis does. There's a really good comparison between those two guys, and it's going to be an intriguing matchup. The quarterbacks are going against each other head-to-head Thursday night.'' Indeed, Wilson has passed for 1,118 yards in four games with nine touchdowns and three interceptions for a 166.62 efficiency rating. Hundley has passed for 888 yards in three games with eight touchdowns and three interceptions for a 165.90 efficiency rating. Hundley has rushed for 157 yards and two scores, while Wilson has 251 yards rushing and five TDs. Wilson, from San Clemente, Calif., was a high school teammate and friend of UCLA receiver Nick Pasquale, who was hit by a car and killed last month. He made his first collegiate start at the Rose Bowl last season, losing 21-14 to UCLA.
RUGGED ROAD TEAM: UCLA has been on the road just once this season, but the Bruins showed remarkable fortitude in an emotional comeback victory at Nebraska, scoring the final 38 points in a sold-out stadium. After shredding the Blackshirts defense in Lincoln, the Bruins are facing even more black shirts: The Utes are wearing black uniforms and encouraging their fans to dress up in black attire. Utah is 4-1 in the so-called ''blackout'' games since the tradition began in 2008. ''We're playing a really good team on the road, and it's going to be a tough environment,'' said Mora, who has never coached in Salt Lake City. ''But I think we're looking forward to get out there and see what we can do.''
WE MEET AGAIN: Mora and Utah co-offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson know each other well. When Erickson replaced Steve Mariucci as the San Francisco 49ers' head coach in 2003, he kept Mora on staff as his defensive coordinator, and they nearly willed a past-its-prime Niners team into the playoffs. Mora left after one season to take over the Atlanta Falcons, and Erickson was fired by San Francisco a year later. ''He's a great offensive mind,'' Mora said. ''He's very creative as a thinker. He's very aggressive as a play-caller. I have a ton of respect for him. I like him as a person. He'll have some things drawn up that we haven't seen, and we'll have to react to it.''
DAMIEN PART II: UCLA tailback Damien Thigpen has been cleared for his season debut, completing his comeback from a torn ligament in his knee. The versatile ball carrier has been in practice for three weeks, and Mora is eager to add Johnathan Franklin's one-time heir apparent back to an already loaded offense. UCLA is 13th in the nation with 284.3 yards rushing per game this season, leaning largely on Jordon James' 141.3 yards rushing, fifth in the FBS. Mora thinks Thigpen will get roughly five chances to touch the ball at Utah as UCLA eases him back in.
THIRD DOWN THUNDER: Utah's biggest flaw in its victory over BYU was a 1-for-14 performance on third down. The Utes have spent the bye week working on ways to change that, but Wilson believes it all comes down to execution of existing plays, not fancy formulas. The Bruins haven't had much trouble in that area yet this season: They're a stunning 28 for 41 on third downs, easily the best percentage (68.3) in the nation.