Knowing he would face moments like this, Dante Moore prepared himself for the possibility of being whipsawed as best he could.
“Nothing’s going to be great, nothing’s going to be perfect,” the UCLA true freshman said earlier in the week when asked about his biggest challenge as a college quarterback, “so a lot of ups and downs.”
The lows started immediately.
In a metaphor for what was to come Saturday afternoon at a rollicking Rice-Eccles Stadium, Moore threw his first pass into the hands of an opposing linebacker who returned the interception for a touchdown.
Utah seized the lead only 12 seconds into the game and never gave it back, the No. 11 Utes rolling to a 14-7 victory that showed how far Moore and the No. 22 Bruins have to go to contend in the Pac-12 Conference.
Moore created some late drama when he drove the Bruins 91 yards in nine plays. He converted one fourth down before connecting with Josiah Norwood on a 17-yard touchdown pass with 3 minutes 39 seconds left to halve the deficit.
UCLA’s stout defense got a quick stop and the Bruins got the ball back at their own 18-yard line with 3:14 to go. But Moore was sacked on the next two plays, backing up his team to the one-yard line. He completed an 11-yard pass to Logan Loya to escape the shadow of the goal line.
But on fourth down, the relentless Utah defense converged around him for its seventh and final sack of the day.
It was an expectedly uneven performance from Moore, who also lost a fumble inside Utah’s 10-yard line and suffered from a slew of issues that resulted in the most insipid offensive performance of the Chip Kelly era.
There was questionable play calling, dropped passes and shoddy offensive line play, all conspiring to limit Moore’s effectiveness while resulting in an inert run game. UCLA averaged just 0.3 yards per carry, largely as a result of all the sacks, while churning out nine yards on the ground.
Starting running back Carson Steele gained 29 yards in 11 carries. Backup T.J. Harden gained 31 yards in 11 carries and compounded his difficult day by dropping a low pass on third down early in the fourth quarter.
Even an inspired defense that held Utah to 222 yards of offense could not overcome the Bruins’ inability to move the ball against the two-time defending Pac-12 champions. UCLA (3-1 overall, 0-1 Pac-12) managed 243 yards of offense and appeared in danger of being shut out for the first time since their infamous 50-0 loss to USC in 2011 before its late touchdown.
Under pressure from the start, Moore completed 15 of 35 passes for 234 yards, his statistics suffering from several drops including what would have been a touchdown that slipped through Norwood’s hands in the first quarter. Utah’s constant pressure prevented him from finding any sort of sustained rhythm.
Not long after Moore completed a 41-yard pass to J.Michael Sturdivant late in the third quarter, the Bruins reached Utah’s 12-yard line with help from a targeting call against the Utes. But on third and six, Moore made a run for it and had the ball stripped. Utah’s Tao Johnson recovered at the nine-yard line to end the threat.
It was a painfully long afternoon for the Bruins after Utah linebacker Karene Reid got a literal jump on Moore’s first pass, reading the route and leaping to snatch the ball in midair. Reid ran the interception back 21 yards for a touchdown, cupping his hands to his ear as he ran into the end zone before a sellout crowd of 52,919 that roared in appreciation.
The Utes (4-0, 1-0) had their own issues on offense without quarterback Cam Rising, who participated in warmups for the first time this season but was unable to play. Quarterback Nate Johnson proved slippery in the early going before the Bruins finally started bringing him down in the backfield with some regularity.
In his most inspired performance as a Bruin, linebacker Kain Medrano forced a fumble on one sack and dragged Johnson down for a nine-yard loss on another. Johnson nearly went down for a safety late in the third quarter when he picked up a fumble and barely found his way out of the end zone.
But he did just enough. A well-designed play in which Johnson rolled out gave him the time he needed to find tight end Landen King for a seven-yard touchdown pass that doubled Utah’s lead.
The Utes were on their way to a fourth consecutive victory over the Bruins on their home field while delivering a hard lesson to Moore about how cruel the college game can be for a young player.