LOS ANGELES (AP) — If Kyle Whittingham and his 11th-ranked Utah squad want to make another trip to the Rose Bowl in three months, Saturday’s game against No. 18 UCLA will go a long way in determining that.
The Utes have won four straight since dropping their opener against Florida, but they now begin a challenging part of their schedule. After facing the Bruins, Utah hosts No. 6 Southern California next Saturday before traveling to Washington State on Oct. 27.
If Utah (4-1, 2-0 Pac-12) can win its next three and run the table, it could also be the first Pac-12 school since Washington in 2016 to make the College Football Playoff.
“We’ve talked about that plenty that we didn’t play our best football in Week 1. But since then, I think we’ve taken a step forward every week; this past week included, obviously,” Whittingham said. “If you want to win a championship, that’s got to happen. You’ve got to be on that upward trajectory from Game 1 to Game 12.”
The Bruins are 5-0 for the first time since 2013 and have an eight-game winning streak going back to last season. Their last loss? It was to Utah last November.
UCLA — also 2-0 in conference play — made its case as a possible contender for the conference title game with a 40-32 victory over No. 15 Washington. But Chip Kelly’s crew is also in the middle of a challenging stretch with Oregon looming in two weeks.
With a more experienced squad, Kelly thinks his team knows how to handle the expectations surrounding the most significant game during his five-year tenure in Westwood.
“The ranking is good. I think it’s deserved by those guys and they should be proud of that. But right after you are ranked, there’s really nothing else. You don’t get a trophy. You don’t get anything,” he said. “We’re not the highest-ranked team in this game. We’re playing against an even higher-ranked team and the defending champs in the conference. So I think that’s got everybody’s attention.”
Utah has won the series’ last five games and outscored UCLA 234-99. The Utes have scored at least 40 points in each game and at least 48 in three of them.
Dorian Thompson-Robinson was the Pac-12’s Offensive Player of the Week after having 368 yards of total offense and accounting for four touchdowns in the win over Washington.
The fifth-year senior — fourth in the nation in completion percentage (74.3%) and 12th in passing efficiency (171.4) — said he circled this game when the schedule was announced in February. He hasn’t faced Utah since 2019, when he was sacked five times and threw a pair of interceptions in a 49-3 loss.
The two schools did not face each other in 2020 due to COVID-19, and Thompson-Robinson missed last year’s game due to an injury.
Running back Zach Charbonnet is coming off a season-high 124 yards last week. Over the previous two seasons, UCLA is 10-0 when Charbonnet goes over the century mark.
Utah cornerback Clark Phillips III, who grew up in Lakewood, California, has four interceptions, tied for most in the nation.
The sophomore picked off three passes against Oregon State last week and returned one for a touchdown. He is one of six active players in the Football Bowl Subdivision with at least three career Pick 6’s.
PICKING UP THE SLACK
With Utah tight end Brant Kuithe lost for the year due to a torn right ACL, the rest of the receiving group needs to continue to elevate their game.
Devaughn Vele has 13 receptions in the past two games and is the only wide receiver with double-digit catches.
The Utes like to establish the run, but Tavion Thomas had only six carries for 13 yards against the Beavers. Thomas is third in the Pac-12 with 67 carries.
KEEP AN EYE ON ...
UCLA’s Laiatu Latu. The junior linebacker leads the conference with six sacks and is tied for fifth in tackles for loss with 6 1/2.
More AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://twitter.com/ap_top25. Sign up for the AP’s college football newsletter: https://tinyurl.com/mrxhe6f2