UCLA heads to Salt Lake City Saturday to play Utah in the first road game for the Bruins since the debacle in the desert at Arizona on Oct. 20.
The road has not been kind to UCLA during coach Rick Neuheisel's tenure as coach, having gone 5-16 in away games since he took over in 2008 and UCLA's last two trips to the state of Utah have not gone so well.
The Bruins lost to Brigham Young, 59-0, in 2008 and lost to Utah, 44-6, when the Bruins were ranked No. 11 in the nation in Sept., 2007.
The forecast for game time is temperatures in the mid-40's with a 20% chance of rain. Add in the effects of playing at an elevation of 4,600 feet and a stadium that has been sold out the last 10 games and the challenge doesn't get any easier.
"We know we’re going to be in for it going into a environment like theirs," UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel said. "The last UCLA team that went there did not fare well so it’s a huge challenge for us."
What they will find when they get there is a team that seems to be finding its footing in its first year in the Pac-12. The Utes (5-4, 2-4 in conference) lost their first four games as members of a major conference, but have bounced back with consecutive victories over Oregon State and Arizona.
The strength of the team is a defense that is 10th in the nation against the run, giving up only 95.44 yards rushing per game, and 25th in the nation in scoring defense, giving up 20.67 points per game. The Utes have held five opponents to less than 100 yards rushing and limited four opponents to 14 points or fewer.
A formidable linebacker corps of Chaz Walker (6-0), Trevor Reilly (6-5, 238) and Matt Martinez (6-0, 225) lead the charge. Walker, a senior, is second in the Pac-12 with 76 tackles and Reilly, a sophomore, has nine tackles for a loss, including five sacks, and has forced four fumbles. Defensive end Derrick Shelby (6-3, 271) is also a force with 32 tackles and four sacks.
The Utes boast a ball-hawking 4-3 defense that is ninth in the nation with 23 takeaways. Four Utah players have two interceptions apiece and the Utes have 12 interceptions as a team.
"They are a very talented team and a very opportunistic team," Neuheisel said. "Very fundamentally sound and a team that looks like really understands field positions and taking advantage of turnovers and obviously very well coached."
The offense, led by former UCLA offensive coordinator Norm Chow, took a hit when starting quarterback suffered a season-ending shoulder injury Oct. 1 and hasn't had much success. The Utes are 111th in the nation in total offense with only 309.1 yards per game.
Backup quarterback Jon Hays, a junior college transfer, has passed for 891 yards and seven touchdowns in his five starts, but also has five interceptions. He is coming off of his best game of the season, however, a 199-yard, two-touchdown passing performance at Arizona and Utah has won three of his last four starts. Still, the Utes are 96th in the nation in passing with 181.7 yards passing per game.
The Utah ground attack begins and ends with John White, a 5-foot-8, 186-pound scat back who has 1,024 yards in 205 carries. The next leading rusher has 106 yards, and White has gotten nearly 65 percent of Utah's carries, so it's pretty clear who will get the ball.
Twice this season, white has carried 35 or more times and he has five 100-yard games. He runs behind a big, veteran offensive line that features five 300-pounders. Tackle Tony Bergstrom (6-6, 315) and guard Sam Brenner (6-4, 300) form a solid right side of the line.