SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 Sports) – Without Cam Rising, the Utes offense is struggling. But the way the defense is playing, this team doesn’t need to score many points.
Karene Reid returned an interception for a touchdown and Landen King had a TD catch for No. 11 Utah, which used a stifling defensive performance to beat No. 22 UCLA 14-7 with quarterback Cam Rising still sidelined on Saturday.
There was speculation all week about whether Rising, who tore an ACL in last season’s Rose Bowl, would be ready to return. He practiced without limits each day and warmed up in pads and full uniform before reappearing just before kickoff in a T-shirt.
And then a suffocating defense carried the day for the Utes (4-0, 1-0 Pac-12).
“We absolutely smothered them,” head coach Kyle Whittingham said. “It was as fine of a defensive performance as I’ve since I’ve been here, and that’s quite a statement. Just absolutely suffocating.”
After splitting practice reps with Rising, Nate Johnson looked sharp early in his second career start, but Utah’s offense was limited in the second half by UCLA’s defense and some conservative play-calling.
Johnson was 9 of 17 for 117 yards as Utah rushed the ball 48 times. Jaylen Glover had 25 carries for 86 yards.
“I felt like everything was fine,” said Johnson, who didn’t throw an interception, but fumbled the ball. “We just kept shooting ourselves in the foot on a certain number of drives. We’ve got to clean up a lot of things on offense.”
Freshman Dante Moore, who was under pressure all game, found Josiah Norwood for a 17-yard touchdown with 3:39 to play to help the Bruins (3-1, 0-1) avoid their first shutout in 12 years.
After forcing a three-and-out, the Bruins had one last chance. But Jonah Elliss was in on two consecutive sacks and then Sione Vaki clinched the win with another sack on fourth-and-14 with 1:49 remaining.
Moore, the highest-ranked quarterback recruit in recent UCLA history, was poised and effective in the Bruins’ first three wins against lesser opponents. Not so against Utah, which sacked Moore seven times.
On his first pass against Utah, Moore telegraphed a pass to the left. Reid stepped in the passing lane to grab an interception and raced 21 yards for a touchdown.
“I thought it was huge,” Reid said about Utah’s second pick-six of the season. “It gave us momentum quick in the game. We were able to get them on their heals, and we kept our foot on the gas pedal.”
Moore, who was 15 of 35 for 234 yards, finally connected on consecutive pass plays of 17 and 41 yards in the third quarter but then fumbled on an option play when he was hit by Lander Barton. Tao Johnson recovered at the Utah 8-yard line.
The Utes haven’t let a freshman quarterback beat them at Rice-Eccles Stadium since Justin Herbert of Oregon in 2016.
“Our mindset was to keep the foot on the gas,” said defensive lineman Keanu Tanuvasa, who had one of Utah’s seven sacks. “We were playing our game, and there wasn’t much correction at halftime. It was our same mindset, which was play great football, play great technique, hustle to the ball, and just be great.”
Kain Medrano forced Utah’s first lost fumble of the year after Johnson had scampered 11 yards in the first quarter. The Utes ended up fumbling three times.
Just before halftime, Johnson threw a 7-yard touchdown pass to King to make it 14-0.
The Bruins somehow had a chance to tie the game on their final drive but again failed to protect the quarterback. UCLA rushed 32 times for 9 yards and the early pick-6 loomed large throughout the game as the Bruins stymied Utah’s one-dimensional offense.
The Utes missed Rising tremendously as the Bruins packed the box against the run. The outcome didn’t ever seem in doubt but Utah needs a more reliable offense. Utah’s biggest issue might be an injury list with 15 regular players — now including primary running back Ja’Quinden Johnson, who left the game in the first half.
“What wins close football games is a fourth quarter pass rush, and the ability to run the ball in the fourth quarter,” Whittingham said. “We had the pass rush, but we didn’t run the ball nearly well enough in the fourth quarter. But fortunately the pass rush showed up, particularly on that last series.”
Utah had just 219 total yards off offense, but gave up just 243 to the Bruins. The nine yards rushing UCLA had was the fourth lowest total given up by the Utes in Pac-12 play.
Utah’s 17-game home winning streak is the third current longest streak in the FBS.
Utah (4-0) next visits No. 14 Oregon State on Friday.