The goal was to arrive here and be relevant. UCLA wanted to face Utah as an equal, or something close to that.
Mission accomplished. Even after a loss to Washington State last week nearly relegated the Bruins to spoiler, they come to Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday one game behind Pac-12 Conference South co-leaders Utah and USC.
A reprieve came when Utah came up short in a double-overtime loss to Arizona. The No. 13 Utes are 8-2 overall, 5-2 in conference play. UCLA is 7-3 overall, 4-3 in Pac-12 action.
“A lot of teams don’t get second chances,” UCLA nose tackle Kenny Clark said. “We have to take advantage of ours.”
If the Bruins beat the Utes and USC on Nov. 28, they go to the Pac-12 championship game.
Simple to figure out; not so easy to accomplish.
“We are sitting here in a really difficult conference,” UCLA Coach Jim Mora said. “It’s just hard every week to win games. We have the opportunity to play a really good Utah team for some really big stakes.”
The Bruins were on life support after a 56-35 loss to Stanford on Oct. 15. It left them two games behind Utah in the division standings. The Utes’ loss to USC opened the door. All UCLA had to do was keep winning to make the Utah game matter.
That didn’t happen, but the Bruins caught a break.
“We knew we couldn’t slip up,” Clark said. “Unfortunately we did lose, but so did Utah. So we got to the position we wanted to be in.”
And now UCLA has received another break. Utah’s workhorse running back, Devontae Booker, who had run for 1,261 yards this season, will not play. Multiple reports said he underwent knee surgery Thursday and would miss the remainder of the season. Utah has not confirmed those reports.
Booker gained 156 yards in 33 carries in the Utes’ 30-28 victory over the Bruins last season. Joe Williams, a seldom-used backup, has 78 yards this season.
Booker’s absence potentially takes a load off the Bruins. Because UCLA sustained some key injuries on defense, any team serious about running on the Bruins has done some serious running.
Arizona rolled up 353 yards, Stanford 310 and Colorado 242. Arizona State threw the ball more, but still racked up 192 yards on the ground. The Bruins lost to Stanford and Arizona State, and were nearly upset by Colorado.
“A lot of things we do on defense, I won’t say they are tremendously complicated, but you have to mind your Ps and Qs,” linebacker Deon Hollins said.
As newcomers stepped in, there was a learning curve, which now should be complete.
“Look how our inside linebackers, Jayon [Brown] and Kenny [Young], have been playing,” Hollins said. “We have been tremendous against the run the last few games.”
Utah is unlikely to change its offensive scheme, but Booker’s loss puts pressure on quarterback Travis Wilson, who has been an effective passer and runner. He will now operate with more defensive eyes looking in his direction.
UCLA knows how injuries can alter things. The Bruins have a much different look since the team left training camp in August. The loss of linebacker Myles Jack and defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes made the Bruins vulnerable to the run.
“We came out of camp certain who we were and that changed quickly for us,” Mora said. “We had to adjust. I think we have adjusted fairly well now, and I hope I’m right.”
The Bruins won’t get a third chance.
“We’ve reached the point where these last two games mean everything for us,” Clark said. “We’ve got to win this game. This is it for us, and for them.”