Scouting the enemy

By By Jason Peterson

By Jason Peterson

Sometimes it’s best to take a look ahead — especially with a memory like Saturday’s 20-12 loss to Air Force still fresh and smoldering on the minds of Utah fans.

Unfortunately, the weekend ahead doesn’t promise to be a path of lilacs and daffodils — a steamroller would be more accurate.

While the Utes were struggling to rush the ball or complete a pass, two of the Utes’ future opponents were squaring off inside the legendary Rose Bowl nearly 600 miles away.

Granted, it’s just two games into the season, but it might be beneficial to soften the ensuing blows by discussing the enemies. A scary moment in a movie isn’t scary if you know about it beforehand, right?

With that said, both UCLA and BYU possess a potentially frightening defense capable of shutting down the run. The Bruins’ rush defense currently ranks 16th in the country, allowing an average of merely 48 rushing yards per game. BYU is ranked 23rd and gives up just 71 yards per contest.

Not that it really matters against a Ute rushing attack that is already ranked 111th in the nation. Coach Kyle Whittingham knows that; he isn’t planning a surprise ground attack this weekend because, well, there is no one to deliver a surprise.

Indeed, the Utes will have to hope starting quarterback Tommy Grady continues to learn the system (he quadrupled his passing yards from game one to game two) and score through the air.

After watching BYU quarterback Max Hall shred the Bruins for 391 passing yards, the aerial attack might be the Utes’ best option. The Bruins rank a paltry 114th in the country in pass defense.

While the Bruins allow plenty of yards against them, they still rank 29th in scoring defense. In other words, opposing teams can march up and down the field but the Bruins stop them where it counts — in the red zone. As they demonstrated on Saturday, the Bruins are quite capable of disrupting momentum. They did so on several occasions against the Cougars, including a critical moment early in the fourth quarter when defensive end Bruce Davis blindsided Hall to force a fumble.

Davis leads a fast-paced, hard-charging defense with a package of blitzes designed to throw off the quarterback from the onset. However, both Hall and Stanford’s T.C. Ostrander (UCLA’s first opponent) eventually figured out that the Bruin defense isn’t invincible. Like Hall, Ostrander struggled at first but finished the game with a career-high 331 yards.

On the offensive side, Heisman Trophy candidate Ben Olsen either has a golden arm (as he did against Stanford with 286 passing yards and five touchdowns) or he’ll toss a dud (126 yards with one interception and zero touchdowns against BYU). The Utes won’t know which Ben Olsen they’ll get, but it might not matter. Utah has the nation’s fourth-best pass defense, allowing just 93 yards per game.

UCLA running backs Kahlil Bell and Chris Markey are likely salivating at the chance to run against a Utes rush defense that ranks better than just six other teams in Division I college football.

Bell has rushed for 274 yards in two games while fellow tailback Markey (a Doak Walker candidate) is no less dangerous. His 121 yards thus far are well below his averages so the Utes cannot afford to sleep on him.

Although the Utes don’t play arch-rival BYU until Nov. 24, they should keep a close watch on the development of Max Hall and running back Harvey Unga.

Aside from the typical mistakes of a youthful quarterback, Hall has nearly picked up where John Beck left off last year. Hall has racked up 679 passing yards with five touchdowns as a sophomore, vaulting the Cougars to 10th in the nation’s passing elite.

Unga is averaging nearly 48 rushing yards per game despite sharing the ball with Fui Vakapuna and Manase Tonga in head coach Bronco Mendenhall’s experimentations.

Needless to say, the Utes have their work cut out for them. Being prepared for the enemy is only half the battle. For Utah, the rest is effort — if not luck.

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Associated Press

UCLA’s Nathaniel Skaggs, left, tackles BYU quarterback Max Hall. UCLA defeated BYU, 27-17.