UCLA is run over by Utah, 52-45, and is running out of time to save its season

Joe Williams
UCLA defenders trail Utah running back Joe Williams as he scores a touchdown in the fourth quarter on Oct. 22.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

It’s bye week at UCLA. It’s getting close to bye-bye for the Bruins’ season.

They unveiled a hurry-up, no-huddle offense for the first time this season Saturday at the Rose Bowl, almost abandoning the run, only to experience a familiar ending. Painfully familiar.

A last-gasp drive came up short, leaving UCLA quarterback Mike Fafaul with a couple of hollow-feeling school records and the Bruins with a 52-45 loss to No. 19 Utah on a day their run defense abandoned them.

Utes tailback Joe Williams continued his improbable sprint out of retirement and into the record books, rushing for a school-record 332 yards and four touchdowns in 29 carries. It was the most rushing yardage UCLA has allowed to one ballcarrier in school history.

“He had a world-class day against us,” UCLA Coach Jim Mora said of Williams, a former high school teammate of Fafaul, “so that’s disappointing because we had been playing the run so well.”

Fafaul’s records felt far less meaningful, particularly after his final pass fell incomplete to end the game. On the play after the scoreboard noted that Fafaul had broken the UCLA single-game record for completions earlier in the fourth quarter, he threw a pass into the end zone that went for his fourth interception, prompting a mass fan exodus.

“I’ll see you at ’SC,” one Bruins fan said to another near the corner of the end zone.

The rivalry game might be about the only remaining intrigue for UCLA in a season bordering on ruin. The Bruins (3-5 overall, 1-4 in Pac-12 Conference play) have lost three in a row and four of five games and will need to go 3-1 the rest of the way to avoid their first losing season under Mora.

Fafaul, the fifth-year senior and former walk-on who made a second consecutive start filling in for the injured Josh Rosen, was not UCLA’s issue. He completed 40 of 70 passes for a career-high 464 yards and five touchdowns, breaking Rosen’s previous school records for completions (34) and pass attempts (57).

Fafaul also had six of UCLA’s 16 carries, meaning the Bruins called 76 passing plays and only 10 runs.

“I’m going to find the best way to win,” UCLA offensive coordinator Kennedy Polamalu said, “and I thought the best way to win today was to throw the football.”

Mora said he did not intend for his team to pass the ball almost exclusively but decided to do so because of its success. The Bruins’ first carry of the second half was Fafaul’s 15-yard scramble on the final play of the third quarter and tailback Bolu Olorunfunmi finished as the team’s leading ballcarrier with 24 yards in only nine carries.

UCLA tight end Nate Iese (eight catches for a career-high 146 yards) and receiver Jordan Lasley (seven catches for a career-high 117 yards) were the primary beneficiaries of their team’s switch to an up-tempo passing attack that Fafaul said the Bruins practiced for the first time this week.

It was a style that appeared to suit them because they ran it under previous offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone. It also helped that the offensive line allowed only two sacks to a Utah defense that entered the game leading the Pac-12 in that category.

“I thought we transitioned seamlessly over this past week,” Fafaul said, “because we’ve been running it for the last four years.

The Bruins finally saw what a prolific running attack looked like. Too bad for them it belonged to Utah (7-1, 4-1), which totaled 360 yards rushing. UCLA defensive coordinator Tom Bradley said part of the problem was players who had been stout against the run for most of this season continually ended up on the wrong side of blocks.

“If I sound disappointed,” Bradley said as he departed the podium after the game, “it’s because I am.”

Mora said he did not fear losing the trust of his players as UCLA continued its slide into the deepest funk of his five seasons on the job. The Bruins have 1 1/2 weeks before their next game, on the road against Colorado, which is tied with Utah for the lead in the Pac-12 South Division.

“That’s like Donald Trump doing one of those,” Mora said, wagging his finger. “You’re not going to lose this locker room, so the answer is an unequivocal no.”


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