The reigning Pac-12 Champs are approaching their conference opener with arguably the most impressive resume in the country.
Coach Kyle Whittingham couldn’t have asked for a better start to the 2023 campaign, considering Utah has played without star quarterback Cam Rising. After all, the Utes defeated two Power Five teams over their past three games, including a ranked squad from the almighty SEC.
Now the important part of the season starts for Whittingham, and he has ruled the Pac-12 with an iron fist. With so much parity in the league this year, several teams are coming for the crown. The Utes have a target on their backs, but it’s nothing new to the longest-tenured coach in the conference.
Utah (3-0) has a ton of momentum approaching its’ battle at Rice-Eccles Stadium against UCLA. The 11th-ranked Utes want to return the favor from last year’s double-digit loss at the Rose Bowl. So there’s no denying the buzz is through the roof. Whittingham has won 13-straight games at home, which dates back to December of 2020.
Not to mention the Bruins haven’t won at Rice-Eccles since 2015. Whittingham’s boys are playing at a high level too. Quarterback Nate Johnson is making the most out of his opportunities during Rising’s absence, with amazing accuracy and breathtaking mobility. He has generated a rushing score in each game. Johnson’s teammate Bryson Barnes had a promising outing in the victory over Florida, and recorded two total touchdowns.
The quarterbacks are very involved in Utah’s rushing attack. Sophomore Ja’Quinden Jackson has held it down in the backfield, and rushed for 129 yards in the win at Baylor. It’s no mystery that Whittingham likes to pound the ball to control the clock and set up the play-action pass downfield. That’s not going to change against the No. 22 Bruins either.
However, UCLA (3-0) is all about stopping the run, and ranks 11th nationally in rushing defense. That means yards won’t be easy to come by, with two dominant defenses looking to set the tone. Whittingham is a special teams guru, which will be beneficial in a game that might go down to the wire.
This top-25 conference clash is an opportunity for Utah to make a statement to the rest of the Pac-12. All the chatter this season has been about USC, Colorado, Oregon and Washington. Still, Whittingham can change the narrative, and boost the Utes in the top-10 with a victory over the Bruins.
Most importantly, it would put a stacked Pac-12 on notice, that the path to the crown still runs through Utah. The conference leads the rest of the Power Five with a jaw-dropping, eight teams ranked in the AP Poll, and they’re all undefeated. With the spotlight on Salt Lake City again this Saturday, Whittingham needs to take advantage, and show the rest of the country who still owns the Pac-12.