The Utah Utes, despite being 2-3 on the season and winless in conference play, are a tough out for just about any team in the Pac-12.
Case in point: While the Utes were heavy underdogs last week heading into their dance with USC, Utah held their own for over 50 minutes, either leading USC or trailing by just three before the Trojans blew the game open and won 38-28.
Part of the reason USC struggled against the Utes was an incredible performance early on from 6’4”, 320-pound senior defensive tackle Star Lotulelei.
Early in the game, Lotulelei dominated USC center Khaled Holmes, exploding off the line and camping in the Trojans’ backfield. Of it, came highlights such as this:
That’s Star Lotulelei exploding off the line at the earliest possible second, forcing Khaled Holmes into a bad snap and recovering the ball in the process.
Lotulelei had a breakout game against the Trojans, although to be fair, the Ute faithful knew this would be a match-up to watch coming into the game.
Of course, UCLA will have to deal with Lotulelei’s explosiveness on Saturday when the Utes come to the Rose Bowl to take on the Bruins. Given UCLA’s abject performances in the trenches, can Lotulelei be contained?
For precedence, you don’t have to search far and wide: USC’s Holmes did a nice job of adjusting and Lotulelei was nowhere near the problem for USC that he was in the first two quarters. The Trojans were never able to comfortably run the ball up the middle with Lotulelei lurking — and their entire run game was in abeyance — but Holmes led the charge in protecting QB Matt Barkley relatively well against a truly maniacal Utah defensive front.
Even then, UCLA doesn’t possess the talent at center that USC does. While freshman center Jake Brendel is widely regarded as having serious potential, he’s not as polished and savvy as Khaled Holmes, a senior, is.
In fact, the entire UCLA offensive line, save senior guard Jeff Baca, is likely to be overmatched due to their inexperience. The Bruins’ youth at the line is well-documented: They start three freshmen — Simon Goines, Torian White (who was pulled last week due to injury) and Brendel — and start a sophomore who’s playing for the first time in a pair of seasons in Xavier Su’a-Filo.
What that means, then, is UCLA will be forced to scheme around Lotulelei to prevent him from making a mess of the Bruin backfield. This includes double-teaming the senior for the majority of the game as well as pushing him in the general direction of anchor Jeff Baca, who may be Lotulelei’s best match.
Last week, the line collapsed far more often against a Cal defensive line that’s good, but doesn’t feature a playmaker like Utah’s defensive tackle. The Bruins’ woes against the Bears in the trenches is no aberration either: The line has turned in subpar performances since UCLA upset Nebraska in week two of the season.
Of course, all is not lost with the UCLA offensive line. This could prove to be a chance to improve upon previous woes and it could be a real confidence-booster if the Bruins can hold their own against the vaunted Utah defensive line.
It won’t be easy, though. It’s going to take a hell of a lot of grit for these Bruins to squash the notion that they’ll be the most overmatched unit on offense almost every game, and especially against the Utes.
But if the line gets cohesive and abates Star Lotulelei?
Game over for the rest of the Pac-12.