Maybe it's the national spotlight. Perhaps it's the different preparation routine that goes into playing on a weekday rather than a Saturday.
Whatever the reason, Thursday nights seem more conducive to the unpredictable.
“I think it’s the first time since I’ve been head coach that we had a bye week followed by a Thursday night game,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said on Tuesday’s Pac-12 coaches teleconference. “You want to balance the bye week and accomplish two things: No. 1, get your players rested and get some bumps and bruises healed up.”
“But No. 2, you don’t want to lose your edge,” he added.
Twelve days of preparation leading up to this Pac-12 South showdown should have both the Utes and Bruins itching for action, the result of which could be another classic.
Utah has been involved in some of the most memorable Thursday night games of recent years.
The path to the 2009 Sugar Bowl went through Thursday night twice. Twice, the Utes escaped in dramatic fashion, preserving their undefeated mark with wins over TCU and Oregon State by a field goal each.
Utah scored 11 points in under two minutes to secure the win over current conference foe Oregon State.
Appropriately enough, Utah's tradition for winning close, Thursday-night contests commemorated the start of 2013.
The Utes avenged their 2012 loss to Utah State on Aug. 29, winning 30-26.
UCLA's last Thursday night conference tilt on Oct. 20, 2011, featured a melee and a streaker dressed as a referee.
So yeah, the Bruins know firsthand about bizarre Thursdays.
With similar hard-nosed defenses and big-play quarterbacks, this one has the potential to be another must-see installment of Thursday night football.
Utah’s aforementioned win over Utah State was the first of three games involving Utah this season decided by single digits. The others: a seven-point win over rival BYU and a three-point, overtime loss to Oregon State.
Conversely, UCLA has yet to be tested in its three games.
Sure, Nebraska built a 21-3 lead over the Bruins in the first half of Week 3, but they responded with 38 straight points and turned the second half into a cakewalk.
Utah has a much different makeup than the Cornhuskers though, relying on its stout defense to set the tone.
UCLA head coach Jim Mora touted the Utes’ “discipline” under Whittingham, particularly on the defensive end.
Central to UCLA’s explosive offense is redshirt sophomore quarterback Brett Hundley. The dynamic playmaker employs a style similar to that of Utah's Week 1 opponent, Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton.
Keeton passed for 314 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for another 85 and one score in the Aggies' losing effort. With more weapons around him, Hundley poses a significant threat to the Utah defense.
“Very good,” Whittingham chuckled when asked to assess the Bruin offense on Tuesday’s Pac-12 coaches teleconference. “Probably the biggest problem we had defensively was Hundley escaping on third down [in last year’s game].”
“They’re a lot better offensive team this year than last year,” Whittingham added.
Utah is operating in a similar manner with sophomore quarterback Travis Wilson. The San Clemente, Calif., product made his collegiate debut in the Utes’ 21-14 loss last season at the Rose Bowl.
Whittingham said the “consistency and continuity” Wilson has provided was an element missing from Utah’s offense for the last four seasons.
Offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson, who Whittingham said was hired to “jump-start the offense,” has done just that. The Utes are averaging 42 points per game.
“Dennis is a great football mind, and he’s very good at exploiting what he sees as perceived weaknesses in the team he’s playing,” Mora said.
So each offense is founded on a dual-threat quarterback. Both defenses have leaders adept at flushing opposing quarterbacks from the pocket and limiting their options.
To wit, Utah has accrued 16 sacks through four games, and UCLA has 21 tackles for loss in three outings.
The similarities make for an intriguing matchup—one that could be low scoring like last year's encounter or a shootout akin to Utah's Week 3 encounter with Oregon State.
Either way, expect the unexpected.
Kyle Kensing is the Pac-12 Lead Writer. All quotes were obtained firsthand, unless otherwise noted. Follow Kyle on Twitter: @kensing45.
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