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As Pac-12 South seeks clarity, UCLA gets Utah without Devontae Booker

As Pac-12 South seeks clarity, UCLA gets Utah without Devontae Booker

Utah running back Joe Williams has some big shoes to fill with the loss of starter Devontae Booker.

(Rick Scuteri / Associated Press)

The Pac-12 Conference South race should clear up Saturday, after UCLA plays at No. 13 Utah and No. 24 USC plays at No. 23 Oregon. UCLA’s path to the conference title game requires the successful navigation of two substantial obstacles, this game against Utah and next week’s at USC. Times staff writer Chris Foster examines t the game’s matchups and story lines.

No ordinary Joe?

This is your moment, Joe Williams. Maybe.

Utah took a blow this week when running back Devontae Booker underwent season-ending knee surgery. It removed a workhorse player, whose 268 carries led the nation. He had 1,261 yards rushing.

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Williams is expected to handle the majority of Booker’s duties. He has 78 yards this season, 50 coming after Booker was injured against Arizona last week.

Utah was a second chance for Williams. He was the No. 2 running back at Connecticut two years ago but was dismissed from school after being charged with larceny on suspicion of stealing a credit card.

Williams is not as powerful as Booker, but his speed makes him a threat. And whether he can handle Booker’s workload remains to be seen.

Bubba Poole, a running back who had moved to receiver this year, could also be an option. He started five games at running back last season.

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UCLA is not a bad defense against which to test yourself. The Bruins have given up an average of 198 yards rushing per game in Pac-12 play.

Watching Wilson

Without Booker, the Utes may depend more on quarterback Travis Wilson, whose confidence on the field brings rewards but carries risks.

Wilson is daring as a runner and passer. He threw for 227 yards and four touchdowns, and ran for 100 yards and another touchdown, in a 62-20 victory over Oregon. He also had four passes intercepted, one returned for a touchdown, in a 42-24 loss to USC.

The Bruins saw up close what Wilson can do in 2013. They intercepted six passes, yet Wilson nearly rallied the Utes from a 10-point deficit in the last three minutes. UCLA overcame it, 34-27, but needed an interception by Myles Jack on the two-yard line with 20 seconds left.

Lines are drawn

Playing Utah means wrestling with the Utes’ physical defensive front. UCLA counters with what is probably its best offensive line this century.

The Bruins have given up 10 sacks this season, the same number former UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley sustained in last year’s game against Utah.

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The Utes ranked 17th nationally in rushing defense, giving up 118.7 yards per game. The Bruins’ Paul Perkins has 1,082 yards rushing and has 11 100-yard games the last two seasons.

Expect push to come to shove, literally.

Fitts fine

Utah defensive end Kylie Fitts transferred from UCLA last year. He has 29 tackles, including 4 1/2 sacks this season.

Asked about the game, Fitts told the Deseret News that there were some hard feelings from UCLA when he left.

“It’s a couple of years ago,” Fitts added. “I’m over it, but I’ve definitely been looking forward to this game for a while.”

Just for kicks

Special teams are typically key when these teams meet.

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The Utes and Bruins seem a push on field goals. Utah’s Andy Phillips has made 18 of 22, including eight of 12 from 40 yards or more. UCLA’s Ka’imi Fairbairn has made 19 of 20, four of five from 40 yards and beyond. He had a school record 60-yarder against California.

But punting may tilt the field Utah’s way. The Utes’ Tom Hackett ranks third nationally, averaging 47.1 yards per kick. UCLA’s Matt Mengel averages 39.3 yards.

chris.foster@latimes.com


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