UCLA quarterback Ben Olson made sure that his first college start was worth the wait and his defensive teammates did the rest in leading the Bruins to an eye-opening 31-10 victory over Utah on Saturday at the Rose Bowl.
"To be honest, we knew Ben was ready," UCLA fullback Michael Pitre said about Olson, who completed 25 of 33 passes for 318 yards and three touchdowns. "We really weren't worried about what he was going to do out there."
Nor were the Bruins too concerned about stopping the Utes' high-scoring spread offense, which was limited to one touchdown and turned the ball over three times.
"We wanted to set a standard of how we're going to play this season," UCLA defensive tackle Brigham Harwell said. "We played well today, but we have to back it up every week . We're determined to let people know that we're not going to be like last year, when we had people run all over us and score at will."
Leading up to the game, UCLA players rallied behind reports in Utah newspapers that quoted Utes players saying they expected to expose the Bruins' new starting quarterback and undersized defense.
"They were talking a lot of trash and that kind of got under our skin," junior middle linebacker Christian Taylor said. "They were talking as if they were going to run all over us and do whatever they wanted in our house and that didn't happen."
Added junior strong safety Chris Horton: "People don't seem to remember that we were undefeated last year at the Rose Bowl. We win at home."
Utah, which finished 7-5 last season, had won four in a row against Pacific 10 Conference teams and received 52 votes in the Associated Press preseason poll. UCLA, which finished 10-2 last season, had lost its last game against a Mountain West Conference opponent — Wyoming defeated the Bruins in the Las Vegas Bowl in 2004 — and did not get any preseason support.
On Saturday, UCLA toyed with Utah for two quarters and dominated the second half to win going away. The Utes did not make a third-down conversion in 11 tries and finished with 287 yards of total offense, compared to UCLA, which had 425 yards and converted six of 14 third downs.
"This was not the way we wanted to start out," Utah Coach Kyle Whittingham said. "UCLA is a good football team; they are a quality football team."
The Bruins could not have asked for a better beginning from Olson, who had not started a game since his senior season at Thousand Oaks High in 2001. The first time the Bruins had the ball, Olson was poised and confident in leading them on an eight-play, 79-yard drive for a 7-0 lead.
Olson completed passes to Brandon Breazell, Marcus Everett and Chris Markey before the Bruins got a break on a third-down pass-interference penalty against Utah's Steve Tate, who hit Andrew Baumgartner early on a throw deep in the Utes' territory.
Two plays later, Olson connected with tight end Ryan Moya for a 16-yard touchdown pass.
"It was so much easier than practice," Olson said. "Practice just prepares you for games . It's tough going against the same guys every day, compared to going up against a team you don't see every day. Things are going to be open."
Olson put the Bruins in position to extend their lead, but Justin Medlock missed wide left on a 46-yard field-goal attempt late in the first quarter.
That helped open the door for Utah's offense to get something going, and quarterback Brett Ratliff responded midway into the second quarter. Ratliff, a senior who beat out Oklahoma transfer Tommy Grady in training camp, completed a 26-yard touchdown pass to Brent Casteel to tie the score, 7-7.
However, the next time Utah had the ball, Ratliff was replaced by Grady, who lasted only two plays before UCLA freshman Alterraun Verner intercepted a pass and returned it 34 yards for a touchdown to give the Bruins a 14-7 lead.
"At that point, we were really still in the game," Utah running back Mike Liti said. "We still had a lot of things happen against us after that, but that was a big play."
Ratliff returned after Grady's poor pass and connected with Marquis Wilson on a 34-yard pass play to set up a 44-yard field goal by Louie Sakoda to cut UCLA's lead to 14-10 before halftime.
The second half was all Bruins.
UCLA stretched its lead to 21-10 early in the third quarter when Olson hooked up with senior wide receiver Matt Willis for a 19-yard score that completed a six-play, 72-yard drive.
Freshman running back Chane Moline's running and receiving led UCLA to another score, setting up a 25-yard field goal by Medlock for a 24-10 early in the fourth quarter.
Olson then finished his day with a nifty nine-yard touchdown pass to Everett, who beat a Utah defender to the ball in the end zone to close the scoring.
"I think we showed who we are and we're only going to get better," linebacker Taylor said about the Bruins, who have won seven consecutive games at the Rose Bowl.
"The offense put up a lot of points and we shut them down defensively. It's a good start for us overall."