At the end of September, a matchup between UCLA and No. 23 Utah probably did not seem like it would carry Pac-12 Conference championship implications.
The South division teams concluded the first month of the season a combined 0-3 in conference play, with Utah dropping games to Washington and Washington State, and UCLA extending the program’s worst start in 75 years into October.
On Friday night at the Rose Bowl, however, the winner leaves still tied for first place in the loss column in the South. One or the other will also continue on course for a unique first.
In the case of Utah (5-2, 3-2 Pac-12), the Utes aim for their first appearance in the Pac-12 Championship Game since joining the conference in 2011. Utah is the only program in the South yet to reach the title game.
Pursuit of a spot at Levi’s Stadium next month may have appeared futile a month ago, but Utah roared back from an 0-2 conference start with wins over Stanford, Arizona and USC, all by double-digit margins. The Utes now have a simple road to Santa Clara, Calif. — win out, and they’re in.
“No peaks or valleys,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said in his weekly press conference on Monday. “They come out and take care of their business on the practice field, in the meeting room and that is really where it starts.”
While Utah may have avoided off-field highs and lows, the Utes have hit an undeniable high with their current three-game winning streak, particularly on offense.
Quarterback Tyler Huntley passed for 341 yards and four touchdowns in a 41-28 win last week over defending Pac-12 champion USC. Huntley spread his scoring strikes among four different targets — Britain Covey, Solomon Enis, Demari Simpkins and Jake Jackson — and ran for a fifth score.
“Shoutout to Tyler,” Covey said in the postgame press conference. “He played a heck of a game and made some plays that if we don’t make it’s a really close game. That’s the one thing you can’t teach a quarterback and that’s what he has.”
Huntley is clicking with the pass, complemented by running back Zack Moss, whose 107.6 rushing yards per game rank second in the Pac-12.
The new-found balance to Utah’s offense feeds off a typically stout Utes defense. Against USC, for example, Utah rolled off 34 straight points in a stretch that the defense forced three three-and-outs and had an interception.
Utah’s output in the past three games of 40, 42 and 41 points marks the first time the program has scored 40-plus in three straight conference games since the undefeated 2004 team did so in five consecutive Mountain West games.
For UCLA (2-5, 2-2), a blowout of Cal and narrow escape vs. Arizona in the past two weeks open the floor for discussion of the previously inconceivable: Bruins in the Rose Bowl?
The premise might seem outlandish. If UCLA wins out, however, and Colorado — which beat the Bruins on Sept. 28 — suffers a loss, coach Chip Kelly’s team gets a championship opportunity with the Rose Bowl game on the line.
Such a turnaround would indeed be a first. According to the Los Angeles Times, 93 teams that began seasons 5-0 played in the Rose Bowl, but none starting 0-5 have.
“We worked out butts off to get in that race,” UCLA defensive back Darnay Holmes said in the postgame press conference after last week’s 31-30 win over Arizona. “But we’re just going to keep on doing what we have to do.”
UCLA’s margin for error is narrow, evidenced in the defeat of Arizona. Holmes chased down Wildcats running back J.J. Taylor in the first half for a strip and fumble recovery on a run that would have otherwise been a touchdown. In a one-point game, such moments make the difference.
For a young and injury-plagued UCLA team, takeaways have been critical to the Bruins’ modest winning streak. They generated five turnovers in the Oct. 13 rout of California and three vs. Arizona. UCLA now boasts the Pac-12’s best turnover margin at plus-6.
In addition to prolific turnover generation, the Bruins have engineered a turnaround behind the production of running back Joshua Kelley. His 136 yards rushing against Arizona sends him into Friday night with a streak of four games for more than 100.
The quarterback joining Kelley in the backfield Friday is something of a mystery this week. An abundance of injuries plaguing UCLA all season claimed Dorian Thompson-Robinson in the first half a week ago, but Wilton Speight — injured during Week 1 — filled in effectively.
Chip Kelly told reporters after Tuesday’s practice that Thompson-Robinson will be available, but he did not name a starter.
“It’s difficult when you’re coming in from the backup situation,” Kelly said of Speight after his two-touchdown performance on Oct. 20. “He was extremely prepared.”