Still without Cam Rising, No. 11 Utah rides defense to 14-7 win over No. 22 UCLA

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Utah's Landon King (82) celebrates his touchdown with quarterback Nate Johnson (13) during the first half of an NCAA college football game against UCLA, Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

SALT LAKE CITY – Quarterback Cam Rising is still out, but Utah’s defense is taking up the slack in a big way.

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 Rising still sidelined on Saturday.

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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).

“What adjective is better than great? That’s what our defensive effort was,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, a longtime defensive coordinator who is known to adore low-scoring games. “Tremendous performance by so many defensive players.”

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. All six of the Utes' second-half drives ended in punts.

“We kept shooting ourselves in the foot on some of those drives. We have a lot to clean up,” Johnson said.

Fortunately for Utah, the defense seems capable of fixing any mess. The Utes allowed only one offensive touchdown for the fourth straight week.

Johnson was 9 of 17 for 117 yards as Utah rushed the ball 48 times. Jaylon Glover had 25 carries for 86 yards.

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. Elliss finished with 3 1/2 of Utah's seven sacks, and the Utes had 11 tackles for loss.

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.

“We recognize our edge rushers are going to get there and us in the middle just need to push the pocket so we’re all collapsing it together,” defensive tackle Keanu Tanavasa said. “Becoming a suffocating defense is really the goal.”

On his first attempt, Moore telegraphed a pass to the left. Reid stepped in the passing lane to grab an interception and raced 21 yards for a touchdown.

“It was huge. It gave us momentum quickly in the game and so we were able to get them on their heels. Then we just kept our foot on the gas pedal,” Reid said.

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.

“That is a great defense. It was a great atmosphere. Everything was going in their favor. They had so many ways to stop our offense,” Moore said.

The Utes haven’t let a freshman quarterback beat them at Rice-Eccles Stadium since Justin Herbert of Oregon in 2016.

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.

“Our guys on defense answered the bell. We have to do a better job on offense,” UCLA coach Chip Kelly said.

Just before halftime, Johnson threw a 7-yard touchdown pass to King to make it 14-0.

STUFF THE RUN

“Chip Kelly is a run-first guy and has always wanted to establish the run in every game,” Whittingham said.

The Utes didn’t let them ever get going on the ground.

The Bruins, who came in with the best rushing attack in the conference averaging 270 yards, finished with 9 total yards rushing on 32 attempts.

“We played an exceptional gap control defense ... and used multiple fronts with some run blitzes that were very effective,” Whittingham said.

In his familiar understated style, Kelly said, “We have to run the ball better than that to win football games and we know that.”

THE TAKEAWAY

UCLA: The Bruins somehow had a chance to tie the game on their final drive but again failed to protect the quarterback. UCLA's inability to run the ball and the early pick-6 loomed large throughout the game as the Bruins stymied Utah’s one-dimensional offense.

Utah: 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 Jackson, who left the game in the first half.

UP NEXT

UCLA: After a bye, hosts No. 21 Washington State on Oct. 7.

Utah: Visits No. 14 Oregon State on Friday.

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