Growing pains and the rise of a stout defense: Takeaways from UCLA’s loss to Utah

UCLA quarterback Dante Moore waits for a play call during the Bruins' 14-7 loss to Utah at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
UCLA quarterback Dante Moore waits for a play call during the Bruins’ 14-7 loss to Utah on Saturday. Moore was sacked seven times in the loss.
(Chris Gardner / Getty Images)
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Saturday showed the dangers of an early schedule filled with creampuffs and caveats.

Yes, UCLA looked like it could compete with anyone in the Pac-12 while pummeling San Diego State and North Carolina Central, but …

Yes, true freshman quarterback Dante Moore picked apart a Group of Five and a Football Championship Subdivision defense, but …

Yes, running backs Carson Steele and T.J. Harden ran all over those overmatched teams, but …


Utah filled in the other side of those buts Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium. The Bruins’ painful slog of a 14-7 loss in their Pac-12 opener showed how far they have to go to become an elite team.

Here are five takeaways from the game:


Growing pains

UCLA quarterback Dante Moore throws against Utah in the second half Saturday.
(Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

Moore’s first pass was intercepted and returned for a touchdown, and things didn’t get much better for a long time.

Struggling to find a rhythm, Moore completed only four of his first 15 passes. His receivers contributed to the inefficiency with several drops, including a bungled touchdown by Josiah Norwood.


Facing constant pressure, Moore rushed several throws and fired the ball out of bounds a few other times to avoid sacks.

“I’m sure there’s some plays he’ll want back,” UCLA coach Chip Kelly said, adding there was plenty of blame to go around. “But there’s calls I want back.”

Freshman quarterback Dante Moore threw an interception on his first pass and was sacked seven times in No. 22 UCLA’s 14-7 loss to No. 11 Utah.

Sept. 23, 2023

After finally guiding his team 91 yards for a touchdown late in the game, Moore had a chance to help tie the score. But the offensive line’s protection issues persisted and Moore was sacked on three of his final four plays.

Kelly said he never considered replacing Moore with Collin Schlee or Ethan Garbers.

The most encouraging sign might have been the leadership displayed by UCLA’s youngest player after he completed only 15 of 35 passes for 234 yards with one touchdown and one interception, falling below the 50% completion threshold for the first time.


“I can put this loss on me, for sure,” said the 18-year-old, who celebrated his milestone birthday in May.


Running aground

UCLA running back Carson Steele carries the ball against Utah in the second half.
(Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

What had been a robust running game took a big step backward.

The Bruins’ nine yards rushing — on a minuscule 0.3 yards per carry — were their fewest under Kelly and their fewest in any game since they finished with minus-one yard against Arizona State in 2016.

Taking away Utah’s seven sacks, UCLA generated 67 rushing yards. Carson Steele gained 29 yards in 11 carries. T.J. Harden gained 31 yards in 11 carries and compounded his hard day by dropping a low line-drive pass on third down early in the fourth quarter.

Chip Kelly has failed to achieve a statement win at UCLA, but improvements on defense could make the Dante Moore-led Bruins a dangerous team very soon.

Sept. 23, 2023

Kelly said part of the problem was his team falling behind 12 seconds into the game, forcing it to throw more than it would have otherwise.


With the running game unable to find its footing, the Bruins had six three-and-outs in their first nine drives. They also struggled on third downs, converting just three of 16 (18.7%) for their worst conversion rate under Kelly since they converted one of 10 during a loss to Fresno State in 2018.


How about that defense?

UCLA defensive back Jordan Anderson chases Utah quarterback Nate Johnson.
UCLA defensive back Jordan Anderson chases Utah quarterback Nate Johnson in the first half.
(Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

Adjusting to the strength of the opponent wasn’t an issue for UCLA’s defense.

These guys stood firm against Utah, holding the two-time defending Pac-12 champions to 219 yards while continuing the season’s most encouraging trend.

Through four games, the Bruins have given up a total of 44 points and an average of 11 per game. UCLA hasn’t held its first four opponents to 20 points or fewer since it reached that threshold against its first six opponents in 2001, beating Alabama (20-17), Kansas (41-17), Ohio State (13-6), Oregon State (38-7), Washington (35-13) and California (51-17).

The Bruins have also held their last three opponents under 300 yards of offense, the first time they have done that since 2009.


It might not be premature to fret about widespread interest in defensive coordinator D’Anton Lynn, whose buyout would be only $500,000 if he left for another job after this season. That buyout is waived if Lynn becomes a college or NFL head coach or an NFL coordinator or position coach.


Raising Kain

UCLA's Kain Medrano chases Utah's Nate Johnson at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Sept. 23.
UCLA linebacker Kain Medrano tries to tackle Utah quarterback Nate Johnson in the first half.
(Chris Gardner / Getty Images)

UCLA’s defense is filled with late bloomers and comeback stories.

Alex Johnson, a sixth-year defensive back and former walk-on, has two interceptions. Edge rusher Laiatu Latu, only a few years removed from a forced medical retirement, has 7.5 tackles for loss.

Linebacker Kain Medrano, a fifth-year senior and converted wide receiver, was the star Saturday. He recorded career highs across the board with 10 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and two sacks while also forcing a fumble.

“He had a great offseason weight room-wise, running wise,” Kelly said. “We’re starting to see that, and I think in all four games so far this year, he’s played at a really high level.”


Bye to those issues?

UCLA players run on the field before the Bruins' 14-7 loss to Utah at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
UCLA players run on the field before the Bruins’ 14-7 loss to Utah at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday.
(Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

Moore and Medrano stressed the need to use the Bruins’ week off to fix their problems before facing Washington State on Oct. 7 at the Rose Bowl.

Said Moore: “I think about Tom Brady, just many times hearing him after a loss, inside of him is like, ‘Damn, I don’t want to lose again,’ and I just know we have to learn from it.”

Said Medrano: “We made some mistakes on defense, gave up a couple of chunks of yards, we could be tighter. I know the offense is going to go into meetings [Sunday] and get corrected what they need to get corrected. … I have full faith in this football team to come back out and we’re going to show you what we’re made of.”