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UCLA’s defense stands up in crucial 17-9 victory over No. 13 Utah

UCLA’s defense stands up in crucial 17-9 victory over No. 13 Utah

Utah receiver Harrison Handley is brought down by UCLA defensive back Nate Meadors in the second half.

(George Frey / Getty Images)

UCLA linebacker Jayon Brown followed the bouncing ball.

Utah quarterback Travis Wilson had juggled the snap and then tried to hand it to running back Joe Williams. Suddenly the ball, the game and UCLA’s season were at Brown’s feet.

He pounced, recovering a fumble with one minute left to preserve a 17-9 victory Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium. A long day of wrestling with the No. 13 Utes left the Bruins tied for first place in the Pac-12 South with Utah and USC.

The division title will be decided next Saturday, when the Bruins (8-3 overall, 5-3 in Pac-12 play) face the Trojans in the Coliseum.

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It was a moment Coach Jim Mora undersold a bit after the game, saying, “This keeps us in the hunt. That’s all we can ask right now.”

Brown lay on the ground, cradling the football as bodies fell on top of him, his mind was already beginning to focus on next week.

The first thing that popped into his head: “Game’s over.”

It was followed by another thought: “One more game and we go to the Pac-12 title game,” Brown said.

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A season in which injuries removed some of the Bruins’ best defensive players was preserved by a defense that had let victory slip away just a week earlier.

The Bruins let Washington State cruise down the field to score with three seconds left for a 31-27 victory at the Rose Bowl.

“Knowing how we didn’t finish last week, we had to hold [Utah] down for the offense,” Brown said.

The Bruins did it by limiting Utah to a season-low 307 yards and forcing two turnovers. It was labor intensive.

The Utes (8-3, 5-3) were missing 1,000-yard running back Devontae Booker, who underwent knee surgery this week.

It hardly seemed an issue. Utah’s physical offensive line pushed the Bruins backward, with the tag-team duo of Williams and Wilson benefitting.

Yet, the end zone became a no-fly zone. The Utes had three field goals and a fumble the four times they got inside the UCLA 25-yard line.

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The Washington State game kept replaying in the heads of UCLA players.

“We couldn’t let that happen again,” defensive end Takkarist McKinley said. The mantra, he said, was “don’t let them in the end zone; don’t let them in the end zone. If we held them to three, that was a win for us.”

Said Brown: “Our offense was going to score.”

It did, a bit.

Josh Rosen tossed a 28-yard touchdown pass to Thomas Duarte on the Bruins’ first possession. He got them in range for Ka’imi Fairbairn to kick a 33-yard field goal on the second possession. Paul Perkins barreled in on a two-yard run in the third quarter.

It wasn’t a lot, but it was enough.

“We kept stopping them when they got close,” Brown said. “It showed them, ‘You’re not getting anything easy.’”

The Utes did have easy access through midfield in the first half and early in the third quarter.

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The 6-foot-7 Wilson, who finished with 67 yards rushing, was a handful to bring down. Williams, who had 78 yards rushing on the season before Saturday, had 121 against the Bruins.

“The book on Williams was he was a big speed guy,” defensive coordinator Tom Bradley said. “If he gets through, he is going to break it.”

Williams got through a few times. He didn’t break it. His longest run was 13 yards. Safety Jaleel Wadood, as the Bruins’ last man standing, brought him down twice in the open field.

“Being free safety, you’re the only one back there,” Wadood said. “Only thing on my mind was, ‘make the tackle.’”

Things tilted UCLA’s way in the third quarter.

“We started playing games with our tackles and ends,” Bradley said.

Utah reached the UCLA two-yard line early in the third quarter. On third down from the three, defensive end Matt Dickerson chased down Williams for a one-yard loss.

“That was a game changer right there,” Bradley said.

The Utes settled for a third Andy Phillips field goal to cut the UCLA lead to 10-9. The Bruins put together a 69-yard drive that ended with Perkins’ touchdown.

Utah went three-and-out on its next four possessions and had only three yards rushing in the fourth quarter.

The Bruins were adamant that there would be no Washington State replay.

Said Hollins: “We had a mountain on our back. We just had to push it off.”

chris.foster@latimes.com

Twitter: @cfosterlatimes


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