It was a chance to make a statement, and the UCLA Bruins made several.
They’re not tough enough. Their defense got pushed around from the start, missing tackles and leaving receivers uncovered.
They’re not smart enough. They sustained one turnover when quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson heaved the ball up for grabs in the end zone and another when Thompson-Robinson ran backward and had the ball stripped, resulting in a long fumble recovery for a touchdown.
They’re not good enough. UCLA had three opportunities within Utah’s 30-yard line in the first half and came away with three points. It turned the ball over five times, including three times in the red zone.
The Bruins showed they’re nowhere near the Pac-12 Conference’s elite during a 49-3 loss to No. 7 Utah on Saturday night at Rice-Eccles Stadium that served as a sopping blanket thrown over their late-season momentum.
“A lot of our guys had their minds set on the Pac-12 championship after this week,” Thompson-Robinson said, “and I think that’s really what it was, we were looking too far ahead instead of focusing on the task at hand, so I think now I see it as a very humbling moment for our team.”
UCLA (4-6 overall, 4-3 Pac-12) had won three consecutive games against average-to-good teams before Saturday but did not stack up against one of the nation’s best. Now the Bruins’ margin for error in reaching a bowl is zero with games remaining against USC and California.
The Bruins managed a season low for points after entering the game leading the Pac-12 in multiple offensive categories in conference play, averaging 37 points per game. It was the first time they went without a touchdown since their 50-0 loss to USC in 2011.
Their upset bid was effectively over by halftime after Thompson-Robinson committed two of his four turnovers and the UCLA defense reverted to its bad early-season habits, surrendering 269 yards and allowing the Utes to go 85 yards for a touchdown in just 46 seconds on their final drive of the first half.
UCLA’s five turnovers were a season high and a big reason the Bruins came up empty on three of their four trips into the red zone and went scoreless over the game’s final 51 minutes 55 seconds.
“You can’t give them that many opportunities,” UCLA coach Chip Kelly said. “That’s kind of what the game boiled down to.”
Things somehow got worse for the Bruins after halftime when safety Stephan Blaylock missed a tackle, allowing Utah tight end Brant Kuithe to scurry down the sideline for a 69-yard touchdown. The Utes led 35-3 and it felt even more lopsided given their defense left no hope for another 32-point comeback a la UCLA’s miracle earlier this season against Washington State.
UCLA was outgained in yardage, 536-269, and couldn’t reliably move the ball on the ground against Utah’s best-in-the-nation run defense. The Bruins generated 50 rushing yards, ending their streak of having topped 200 yards in that department at five games.
“It doesn’t matter where the ball carrier is at,” said UCLA tailback Joshua Kelley, who managed 78 rushing yards and averaged 4.1 yards per carry, “they swarm to the ball.”
Thompson-Robinson was constantly running away from pressure, getting sacked five times and fumbling twice. He was also inefficient through the air, completing 20 of 36 passes for 219 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions before departing midway through the fourth quarter.
“They sent the house a couple of times and really put pressure in my face,” Thompson-Robinson said, “so it was hard to get the ball out early.”
Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley didn’t have that issue while routinely finding open receivers. He was nearly flawless, completing 14 of 18 passes for 335 yards and two touchdowns.
UCLA’s defense also faltered badly against Utes running back Zack Moss, who left cleat marks all over the artificial turf and the Bruins’ psyche with one big play after another. Missed tackles were just part of the problem as Moss amassed 181 of his 200 all-purpose yards by halftime.
“You can’t afford to have mis-fits or have mental errors or have 10 guys doing the job and one guy not,” UCLA linebacker Lokeni Toailoa said, “because when that one guy’s not, that’s when you give up the big plays like happened here.”
Moss’ 38-yard touchdown run late in the first half gave Utah (9-1, 6-1) a 28-3 cushion on a cool but not frigid evening that nevertheless froze the Bruins’ hopes of a full-blown reversal of fortunes after their 1-5 start.
Next up is a rivalry game that won’t hold nearly the significance it could have.
“All I know is we needed to stay in the present, which was Utah,” Toailoa said, “and it didn’t seem like we did a good job of that tonight.”