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Opponent Defense Preview: Utah

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The Utes’ defense undergoes a bit of a rough patch.

NCAA Football: UCLA at Utah Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Intros suck. Let’s get to it:

Personnel

Known for their defense under Kyle Whittingham, Utah lost a load of talent to the NFL last year and it’s thrown them a bit off this season.

While they still play with their trademark solid tackling and over-performance relative to recruiting level, a combination of talented youth and inexperience has hit them harder than some projected. It’s been noted that their pass rush has particularly suffered with the loss of Hunter Dimick and Company, as well as most aspects of their defensive line..

Offenses like UCLA and Oregon have attacked the perimeters of the front seven with varying levels of success, while they had trouble containing the Cougars on third down.

The defensive line seems like they rush three more often than many teams, which certainly doesn’t help a defensive line already struggling. Ironically, this is probably the most mature unit; it’s bookended by returning seniors Lowell Lotulelei and Kylie Fitts at defensive end with other fifth year senior Filipo Mokofisi at tackle.

We’ll typically see them line up in either a 3-4 or 3-3-5, although occasionally they’ll put up four down linemen.

In the linebackers, emerging sophomore Donavan Thompson in the inside has become somewhat of a shining light in the face of injuries, while senior David Luafatasaga provides steady experience. Another senior presence is Sunia Tauteoli, who excels at reading play development and is a leading tackler who makes plays all over the field.

Then there’s the secondary, which faces the challenges of being both young and hit with injuries as the season’s gone on.

Probably the most impactful injury was safety Marquise Blair, who was taken out for the season against UCLA.

Luckily for Utah, Corrion Ballard has filled in well and they still have strong safety, Chase Hansen, available after injuries had him out for a couple games this year. Hansen is arguably the leader of this defense and one of the best safeties in the conference, if not the country. Many of the cornerbacks and other defensive backs being rotated in are defined by their talent and youth. Freshman Jaylon Johnson has covered quite well, Casey Hughes started nine games, Julian Blackmon has been a solid contributor, and Javelin Guidry solidified Utah’s victory against Arizona with an interception return for a touchdown.

Even with the injuries and overall dip in performance, the Utes are still an above average defense. They give up 24 points per game and are 8th in the country in turnovers gained with 12 interceptions and 10 fumble recoveries. They held up WSU in short field situations over and over, and helped keep their offense in the game when the Cougs could have been 21-0 by the end of the first quarter.

Bottom Line

With the Utes’ trouble with the pass rush, it’ll be interesting to see if Jake Browning and the passing game’s struggles improve. On the other hand, the secondary being a relative strength of this defense is probably more of a problem given that Washington’s receivers are more at fault than the offensive line if we have to compare the two’s responsibilities. On the other other hand, their secondary’s on-again, off-again injury-infused depth issues will probably become particularly pronounced once the game goes on. With that in mind, the Dawgs’ passing game will likely be more effective post-second half.

Washington’s running game is, again, probably at an advantage as well, although it will likely take a bit of time to kick into gear. The defensive line’s loss of so many seniors last year has taken its toll, and if the Huskies commit to pulling some guards around and hitting with Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman, plus maybe occasionally going for the perimeter with Salvon Ahmed, they should reasonably get the best of that part of Utah’s defense.

As always, any lurking Ute fans feel free to chime in.

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