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Opponent Defense Preview: Utah

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The Utes are known by now as a solid, tough defense, but that doesn’t mean they’re without weaknesses.

NCAA Football: Utah at Oregon State Cole Elsasser-USA TODAY Sports

We all know Utah by now.

We know Kyle Whittingham puts up a defense that thrives on bullying their opponents into submission. We know they forced about a bajillion turnovers against the Dawgs last year right when we thought maybe, just maybe, a comeback could happen. We know they’re mean and crazy. We know they’re a defense we bring up whenever other conferences claim the Pac-12 is all a bunch of air raids and skill players who crumble on contact.

And yeah, those are all compliments.

Personnel

Utah’s reputation on defense has by this point been solidified as physical and tough. With this comes a certain opportunism: Utah has 71 points off turnovers while their opponents only have 20. That’s 30% of Utah’s scoring output coming off of their defense forcing turnovers, compared to UW, where just over 18% of points (62) are coming off turnovers, WSU at 12% (35), or Colorado at 19% (50). Granted, part of that is that all these teams are averaging significantly more points per game than Utah, but it still goes to show their defense’s importance in giving their offense opportunities. Utah is proof that with a good defense you will always be kept in games. Or, as has been the case for most of 2016, you’ll win them.

In the secondary it looks like they’ll be playing without free safety Marcus Williams, who was out against UCLA and isn’t on the depth chart for this Saturday.

Which brings us to the defensive backs. Of their defense this year, it’s the long passing game that could be described at times as a liability. This was on display against UCLA and Cal, as well as Arizona against whom they had similar problems to those UW experienced, allowing the Wildcats to strike for two touchdowns of over 60 yards. UCLA and Cal executed multiple explosive plays as well in those games, including touchdown passes of over 50 yards. As it’s been put on Block U, they’ve been known to “get torched for big plays.” That’s not a history that you want going up against players like John Ross and Chico McClatcher.

Then again, they’ve also produced plays like this:

So on one hand, they’re susceptible to allowing explosive plays. But on the other hand...they do that.

In other words, this is a unit that will make Jake pay if he gets too comfortable and tries to force throws.

In the trenches, senior Hunter Dimick co-leads the Pac-12 with six sacks while Filipo Mokofisi, who has been playing not at his usual tackle but at the end in place of injured Kylie Fitts, has four. Like Petersen, Coach Whittingham recognizes the importance of a deep, havoc-inducing D line. Not that you need me to tell you that, as it’s been apparent for years that that’s a priority of Utah football. Just last year, ESPN ran an article about how Kyle Whittingham’s stout defense was what Chris Petersen looked to as the objective for what Washington should be. (Yes, I know I should’ve linked to that article, but I’m lazy. Just Google it.)

The defense as a whole currently gives up 21.6 points per game, good for 31st in the country. Seeing as how they’ve been without a handful of star players for multiple of these games (first team All-Pac 12 DT Lowell Lotulelei comes to mind, though he’s back now), that further proves Whittingham’s emphasis on the next man up; their depth and culture of physicality, while not completely mitigating any dropoff from first to second (to third to fourth) string, ensures that it’s minimal.

Their red zone defense, however, isn’t in the top 50 in FBS. Neither is their yards per rush allowed (4.22), which is covered up by the fact that their rush yards allowed per game (119) is at a more-than-respectable 21st in the country. Both of these are things Washington will likely try to exploit.

Bottom Line

Speaking of the red zone, Washington is scoring on 91% of red zone trips. (On the flip side, Utah’s red zone offense has struggled with completing touchdowns while Washington’s red zone defense is where they shine, but that’s for the offensive preview.) The Utes will thrive if they are able to keep Washington in the middle of the field or backed up on their own side for much of the game. At this point my instincts are telling me that field position and opportunism will decide Utah’s success.

Speaking of, Washington — specifically Jake Browning — must prioritize keeping the ball safe. So much of Utah’s offensive scoring output is the result of extra opportunities coming from turnovers. If the Huskies don’t give the Utes those extra opportunities they should be safe, but if Utah wins it will be because they won the turnover margin and gave the offense more opportunities to score, especially if, as obvious as this sounds, turnovers occur in favorable field position for Utah.

This is especially relevant given that, although one of Browning’s overwhelming strengths is his strong decisionmaking and knowing his limits, every once in a while he can be baited into throwing into tight spaces *coughArizonacough*.

Lastly, the rush defense can be an all-or-nothing type for the Utes. Their D line is such a bully and so difficult to get through, but if Washington’s O line and running backs can get through the trenches, there’s yards to be had. This was well illustrated against USC, whose RB Justin Davis piled up 213 ground yards. Basically, if Gas Pedal or Coleman go inside the tackles, they’ll either be stopped at the entrance or break through and find some serious space.

Do good things, don’t do bad things, and bow down to Washington.