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UCLA poised to become top dog in the conference

UCLA poised to become top dog in the conference
UCLA defensive back Ishmael Adams scored on a 100-yard kick return and had a 95-yard pick six against Arizona State on Sept. 25. (Rick Scuteri / Associated Press)

For now, No. 8 UCLA can ascend to the top of the Pac-12, at least in perception, after No. 2 Oregon lost to Arizona on Thursday. But first the Bruins have to beat Utah on Saturday night. The Times' Chris Foster looks at the matchups and story lines.

We're No. 1 (in conference)

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UCLA has struggled in the role of front-runner this season after spending a decade as a middle-of-the-pack team. Oregon's loss has put the Bruins at the top of the Pac-12's food chain.

Who else could claim that spot?

The Ducks and Stanford, the Pac-12's upper-stratosphere teams in recent years, have conference losses. Arizona State and Oregon State, fledgling challengers to the throne, also lost last week. USC was embarrassed by Boston College. Undefeated Arizona was unranked before beating Oregon and will have to climb the ladder.

So it leaves the Bruins on top, if they can survive Utah.

The last time UCLA was the conference's highest ranked team was Oct. 22, 2001, when the Bruins were No. 4. They lost to Stanford that week and finished the season 7-4. A lot of meandering followed in Westwood.

Bear wrestling

The Bruins might end up with a glamour victory similar to the Arizona State game, one chock-full of big plays. But it's doubtful.

This one will require putting their backs into it, meaning their linemen.

Utah is known for physical play. The offensive line averages 311 pounds and is capable of opening huge holes. Devontae Booker had 178 yards rushing against Washington State last week.

The defensive front is tied for fifth in sacks nationally among the 128 Football Bowl Subdivision teams. Defensive lineman Nate Orchard has 4.5 sacks.

The Bruins, though, may prefer a little bump and grind. Their running game has improved behind a developing offensive line, though they will probably be without guard Alex Redmond (ankle). The Bruins have been better at pass protection the last two games.

The Bruins' defense held Arizona State's D.J. Foster, then the nation's eighth-leading rusher, to 30 yards last week. UCLA defensive linemen Eddie Vanderdoes and Kenny Clark have been formidable this season.

QB triage

Both teams have quarterbacks who are dangerous when they improvise. The only difference is UCLA's Brett Hundley comes packed with more natural talent. Utah's Travis Wilson has more pedestrian skills.

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The two have had health issues because they are free-range quarterbacks.

Hundley still has a tender elbow, an injury from the Texas game Sept. 13. Wilson missed the last three games a year ago because of a severe concussion. He was knocked out of the Michigan game two weeks ago after being sent head-over-cleats. He returned to the game to lead the Utes to victory.

Having your No. 1 quarterback available is always important for ball security, if nothing else. Wilson has yet to have a pass intercepted. Hundley has had one.

Pass-Fail

The Bruins saw Mike Bercovici, Arizona State's backup quarterback, throw for 488 yards last week. Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch threw for 305 yards against the Bruins. Virginia's Matt Johns came off the bench to nearly beat UCLA.

UCLA Coach Jim Mora said he is less concerned about yards allowed in the era of the spread offense. But it's unlikely he'd be upset if the Bruins surrendered less real estate.

The pass defense problems begin up front. The Bruins have four sacks and need to apply more heat on the quarterback to take the pressure off the secondary.

No return policy

Utah's Kaelin Clay has returned three punts and one kickoff for a touchdown. UCLA's Ishmael Adams has returned a kickoff for a touchdown, and had an 85-yard punt return nullified by a penalty. He has also returned two interceptions for touchdowns.

These two are game shifters. Both coaches have said they will not kick away from them. We'll see how long that lasts.

Bruins 4-0, 1-0 -- Utes 3-1, 0-1

Per Game -- UCLA -- Utah

Points scored -- 38.0 -- 42.0

Points allowed -- 24.8 -- 19.8

Passing offense -- 304.8 -- 247.2

Rushing offense -- 175.5 -- 192.2

Passing defense -- 313.8 -- 262.0

Rushing defense -- 137.0 -- 107.5

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