PASADENA, Calif. -- This was an ugly, grinding, aesthetically displeasing game in which UCLA's high-flying offense never seemed to get going.
Exactly the kind of game the Bruins needed, coach Jim Mora said.
UCLA defeated Utah 21-14 on Saturday in a Pac-12 Conference game that was played at the Rose Bowl but won in the trenches.
UCLA's defense held strong as the Bruins' offense sputtered to a season-low 354 total yards in a smash-mouth game between two teams scratching and clawing to bounce back from blowout losses.
"Games like that build character," Mora said. "Games like that show you that you can get in games like that and win."
That's something UCLA hadn't yet done this season. The only other game that could be considered a defensive slugfest came against Oregon State, and the Bruins lost that one 27-20. In every other UCLA game this season, one team or the other has scored at least 36 points.
The Bruins have made their name as a prolific spread offensive team that had piled up 444 yards or more in five of its six previous games and was No. 8 in the nation in total offense with 529 yards per game going into Saturday.
Against Utah, UCLA failed to reach 200 yards passing for the first time all season, and running back Johnathan Franklin had only 79 yards rushing. The only other game this season in which Franklin did not rush for 100 or more yards was against Oregon State.
"These games are important," Mora said. "They may be not beautiful and you may not have great stats, but there is something to winning these gut grinders, these tough ones, especially when you are developing teams."
UCLA's defense made a major statement. Last week, the Bruins were worked over in a 43-17 loss at California, but they held tight against Utah. The Utes scored only one offensive touchdown (the other came on special teams) and had only 75 yards rushing. It was the fewest yards rushing against UCLA this season.
The Bruins also came up with some crucial third- and fourth-down stops, and Utah did not get inside the UCLA 30-yard line until its scoring drive late in the fourth quarter. Even then, it took Utah four plays to score after facing a first-and-goal from the 2-yard line.
"We didn't wilt," cornerback Andrew Abbott said. "Games like this will help us mature. Not having the big blowout, guys understand that we're going to be in tough games and we need to respond. I think that's what we did today."
Abbott was responsible for several of the crucial defensive plays. His interception on the first Utah drive set the tone. He made an open-field tackle on a fourth-and-8 in the second quarter, and his tackle for a 5-yard loss on a third-and-3 play in the fourth quarter deflated the Utes.
"They went for it a couple of times on fourth downs, and we kind of took that personal," Abbott said. "When teams go for it on fourth down, it should kind of eat you up a little bit. Those are big because of the momentum shifts."
Performing well against a Utah offense that was using a true freshman quarterback in his first career start probably isn't going to lead to too much chest puffing.
Utah was 114th in the nation in total offense going into the game and actually exceeded its season average of 299.4 yards per game. But getting it done against anyone is a feat. UCLA's defense has been inconsistent this season and had looked particularly shaky in recent weeks.
Last week, the Bruins got torched for four touchdowns by a quarterback who'd passed for only five in his previous five games.
"I thought the players responded," defensive coordinator Lou Spanos said. "We held strong when we needed to be. They played hard and they did what they are supposed to do."
The Bruins hope this can be a watershed moment for a young team still developing under a first-year coaching staff.
"These are great learning and growing opportunities," Mora said. "Every game is not going to be a blowout. You have to learn how to win these, so it's a step in the right direction for us."