While it already possesses one of the nation's most explosive offenses, No. 12 UCLA is coming off its bye week ready to add another weapon in its Pac-12 opener.
Running back Damien Thigpen is set to make his season debut Thursday night when the visiting Bruins look for their best start in nearly a decade against a Utah team that has some firepower of its own.
With his ability to make big plays both in the running and passing game, Thigpen last season appeared to be the next in line to replace former standout Johnathan Franklin.
Then a junior, Thigpen rushed for 262 yards and two touchdowns and caught 18 passes for 211 yards and two scores before suffering a torn ligament in his left knee against USC on Nov. 17. He also averaged 26.9 yards on kickoff returns, which would have ranked in the top 25 nationally had he not been a few attempts shy of qualifying.
After spending the last three weeks in full contact during practice, Thigpen is expected to be eased back into a talented but crowded backfield rotation as the Bruins open conference play looking to start 4-0 for the first time since 2005.
"It's a definite - he's going to play," coach Jim Mora said. "Not that you want to get your running back hit, but when you're coming off an injury like that it's important that you take some shots. I think it builds your confidence when you do."
Thigpen's return gives Mora another option in a rushing attack that ranks 13th in the country with 284.3 yards per contest.
Jordon James rushed for a career-best 164 yards and two touchdowns as the Bruins racked up a school-record 692 total yards in a 59-13 victory over New Mexico State on Sept. 21. James ranks fifth in the nation with 141.3 rushing yards per contest, while Paul Perkins (6.7 yards per carry), Malcolm Jones (5.3) and Steven Manfro (6.2) also play key roles in the running game.
"It's hard because we have some really good backs, but I think it's important that we get Damien some carries," said Mora, whose club ranks second nationally in total offense (614.3 yards per game) and third in scoring (52.7).
Quarterback Brett Hundley has completed 61 of 92 passes for 848 yards with eight touchdowns and three interceptions in the Bruins' high-scoring offense, though two of those picks came against the winless Aggies.
Hundley connected on 15 of 21 attempts for 183 yards - the second-fewest of his career - and a touchdown as UCLA held on for a 21-14 home win over Utah last October.
Shaq Evans had four catches for 91 yards and a touchdown in that meeting, and he leads the team with 13 receptions for 210 yards and three scores heading into this contest.
The Utes (3-1, 0-1 Pac-12), also coming off a bye week, have won the two previous meetings at home by a combined 75-12 margin - including a 44-6 victory over the 11th-ranked Bruins on Sept. 15, 2007.
They'll try to avoid a second straight home defeat after bouncing back from a 51-48 loss to visiting Oregon State in their Pac-12 opener Sept. 14 with a 20-13 win at BYU a week later.
Quarterback Travis Wilson completed 24 of 35 passes for 273 yards and two touchdowns without an interception following his career-high three picks against the Beavers. The sophomore was named Pac-12 offensive player of the week.
"Travis had another great game," said receiver Dres Anderson, who caught eight passes for a career-high 141 yards. "He got hit a couple times, but he did his thing. Thank goodness he's healthy and we're progressing."
Anderson, the son of former NFL receiver and ex-UCLA star Flipper Anderson, seeks his fourth straight 100-yard receiving effort. He proved to be a difficult matchup for the Bruins last season when he finished with nine catches for 70 yards and a touchdown.
This time, Anderson will have to contend with a UCLA team that ranks 19th in the nation in pass defense - allowing just 177.0 yards per game.
"Dres has been a big plus this year for us and I've been waiting for Dres to step up and put up those kind of numbers for a couple of years now,'' coach Kyle Whittingham said.
James Poole has rushed for 304 yards and a score for the Utes, who rank 16th nationally with 504.8 yards per game and 19th in scoring by averaging 42.0 points.
Despite winning two of the last three meetings, Utah has dropped nine of 11 all-time matchups.
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