UCLA needed to win two of its three games through this gauntlet stretch to stay in the race for the Pac-12 South. But Utah ran the Bruins out of the conference race Saturday night in Salt Lake City with a 44-24 win. With the loss, UCLA is eliminated from the conference race and looking to maintain bowl viability.
UCLA started the game with backup quarterback Ethan Garbers. Dorian Thompson-Robinson has been working through an injured throwing hand all week. It was clear in pre-game warm-ups that he couldn’t put anything on his passes. The Bruins were also without right tackle Alec Anderson who did not make the trip to Utah for undisclosed reasons.
Garbers did his job, considering these were the first significant snaps of his college career. He finished the night 27 of 44 for 265 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception. The problem was that Utah was predictably too physical on the other side of the ball for UCLA. The Utes pushed the ball downfield on the Bruins defense with ease, scoring touchdowns on their first four possessions of the game. For whatever UCLA put up on offense, Utah answered and then some, and did so with greater ease. The Bruins have now played the two most physical teams on the schedule and lost both times.
Utah Offense Owns UCLA Defense
Utah’s offense, led by sophomore quarterback Cam Rising averaged about seven yards per play throughout most of the night. They piled up 290 yards on the ground, behind an offensive line that dominated UCLA’s defensive front seven.
Tavion Thomas started the scoring with a 10-yard touchdown run. The Utes had gone 75 yards, aided by a Jordan Genmark Heath facemask penalty, on the first drive of the game to go up 7-0. It was the first of Thomas’ four touchdown runs in the game.
Garbers hit his first five passes of the game to move the Bruins downfield. But a bad snap got them bogged down at the Utah 11, and they had to settle for a 28-yard Nicholas Barr-Mira field goal.
On the first play of the second quarter, Thomas ran for eight yards over the left side of the line for the touchdown and the 14-3 lead.
Garbers helped UCLA get into the end zone midway through the second quarter. On fourth and two at his own 45-yard line, he took himself for three yards to keep the drive alive. Eight plays later, Zach Charbonnet busted through the left side of the line and broke four tackles on his way to a 30-yard touchdown run to get the Bruins to within four points at 14-10.
UTES Score Four Touchdowns On First Four Possessions
But UCLA’s defense had no answer for Utah. Rising took the team 75-yards downfield. He ended the touchdown drive rolling to his right and then throwing across his body for a four-yard touchdown pass to Dalton Kincaid and the Utah lead was back up to 21-10.
Thomas got his third touchdown of the night with a great stop and start run that had UCLA defenders grabbing at air. He took it 10 yards for the touchdown and 28-10 lead, which is where it stood at the half.
In the third quarter, Garbers got his first career touchdown pass. He threw a six-yard rope into the end zone for Michael Ezeike. It was also Ezeike’s first career touchdown pass, capping a 91-yard scoring drive that put the Utah lead at 28-17.
Rising put the game out of reach for good with a 12-yard touchdown run on the first play for the fourth quarter.
Garbers had a nine-yard touchdown pass to tight end Greg Dulcich in the fourth quarter. But he was also sacked in the end zone for a safety when he was given no time to throw. Utah added another touchdown late in the fourth quarter to seal the blowout win.
UCLA Run Defense Gets Run Over
UCLA head coach Chip Kelly, in his postgame press conference, continued to tout how good the UCLA run defense had been outside of a couple of games. But looking at the games where UCLA held its opponents to under 100 yards, provides a list of teams that have not been good rushing teams against much of anyone this season. As the Bruins have faced more run-based, physical teams, they have not matched up well defensively.
Genmark Heath, the sixth-year linebacker said, “The first half we were trying to figure out what they were going to do.” He added, “We gave them the first half and that’s not ok.” He also noted, “They were doing the same thing we have seen,” saying it was similar to what other teams have done. The question is then, if the defense studied the Utah run game, and practiced for the Utah run gap, where is the gap that allows for such a dominant Utes performance?
Kelly was directly asked how he could continue to justify defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro’s role with a unit that has been a sore spot for all of the head coach’s tenure. “I’m just going to talk about tonight,” was Kelly’s response. He said he thought the defense improved last year and played well in some of the games earlier in the season. He again relied on early-season rushing defense stats that are easily dismissed. “Tonight we did not play well in the rush category,” he said.
Garbers Did His Job
Kelly did give credit to Garbers for his performance while refusing to say when it was known that Thompson-Robinson could not play. The incumbent quarterback was out early throwing the ball. It is unknown if the decision to go with Garbers was made when it was clear Thompson-Robinson could not put any zip on the ball, or if it was made earlier.
“Garbs is a cool customer,” he said. I’m happy with the way Ethan played. He had one pick, but it was on a tipped ball. Besides that, I thought he did a good job with the ball.” In fact, Garbers’ 265 yards passing were the second most throwing yards for a UCLA quarterback this season. His 61% completion rate was the fourth-highest in nine games this season.
Garbers was not as effusive about his performance, saying it didn’t matter much in light of the loss.
The Margin For Error Is Gone
The Bruins fall to 5-4 overall and 3-3 overall with the loss.
Kelly has been known to reference the old coaching bromide, “You are what your record says you are.” The Bruins have now played the two most physical teams on their schedule. They lost to both of them. They are out of the Pac-12 South race. When asked what his team is based on the bromide, Kelly said, “We’re 5-4.” When pushed to give an assessment of the performance to this point, he said, “I think this team battles. I think this team is resilient.” He went on to add that there are, “Some things we still have to clean up.”
UCLA has a bye week before playing three teams that are certain not to excite the UCLA faithful at the Rose Bowl. Colorado is one of the worst teams in the conference. USC escaped at home against Arizona, while losing its best player Drake London to a serious ankle injury. And then UCLA finishes against Cal, a team that shows flashes of improvement.” A sweep would make them 8-4 and give them a better bowl game, but would not qualify as a success, given that they could not beat the best teams they faced this season.
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