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Opponent Defense Preview: Utah Redux *Air Horn*

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Excuse me while I copy verbatim what the original Utah Defense Preview said. Just kidding. Mostly.

BYU v Utah Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images

Ya know what? I think Washington, when in the Pac-12 Championship game, should always play someone they already faced. This isn’t because of anything to do with the games, but because that way, when Jeff and I are writing are opponent previews, we can just link to our old ones and hit the publish button.

So without further ado: A comprehensive look at Utah’s defense.

But of course, things have changed some since then. The Utes have faced a bigger variety of offenses, have had injuries, new players have emerged, and so on. Like any team at the end of the season, they’re different.

Here’s the quick hits how:

Personnel and What’s New

Normally, this heading is “Personnel and What to Expect,” but again — we’ve already gone over that. Instead, what we really need is a refresher and some thoughts on how they’ve evolved since the Dawgs played the Utes two and a half months ago. So, in case you forgot the main points:

  • Up front: Pita Tonga and Bradlee Anae are monsters, with the latter being the Pac-12 leader in sacks with eight, while redshirt sophomore DE Maxs Tupai has broken out the latter half of the season. Otherwise, look out for DTs Hauati Pututau and Leki Fotu. With the strength up front combined with more monsters at the linebackers (see below), it’s not surprising they have the 5th best rushing defense in country with 2.96 yards per rush and 100.3 rushing yards per game given up. They are 21st in the country in sacks per game (2.83) — better than everyone in the Pac-12 other than Wazzu — and 5th in tackles for loss with 8.2 per game.
  • In the middle: Made up of the pillars of the team, seniors Cody Barton and Chase Hansen, most prominently backed up by former BYU player Francis Bernard. Hansen is the former strong safety who’s been terrorizing Washington for about a 100 years and is currently the Pac-12 leader in TFLs (22), good for 4th in country. Going along with that is his five sacks, and he’s a likely pick for Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year. While it’s incredibly difficult to pick one unit on this defense as “the best,” with all of them being so stellar, if you put a gun to my head I’d probably have to go with the linebackers, both for their physical abilities and leadership on the team.
  • In the backfield: While some Utes fans have been less than comfortable with their secondary’s performance the last month-ish, they’re still pretty darn good. We’re all familiar by now with corners Julian Blackmon and Jaylon Johnson, plus safeties Corrion Ballard and Marquise Blair, and fifth man Javelin Guidry. They have 13 interceptions on the season for 24th in the country, including Blackmon’s pick six against BYU that was the beginning of Utah’s insane comeback. More recently, their last five games (BYU, CU, Oregon, ASU, and UCLA), they’ve given up passing yards of 204, 84, 288, 285, and 164, respectively, averaging one interception per game, and they only allow an average yards per attempt of 6.37 for opposing quarterbacks.
  • Other miscellaneous: Utah is best in the Pac-12 in allowing 3rd down conversions (33%), 2nd in the country in red zone defense (62.9% scoring percentage) and, overall, are 17th in the country and 2nd in the Pac-12 in scoring defense (19.3 points per game allowed).

Otherwise, the main points from two and a half months ago hold true, but since then the main things I’ve seen:

  • Utah physically overpowered Stanford in the trenches, especially against the run, and it wasn’t really close. Otherwise, they were less dominant as a pass rush — although that came through in clutch situations when Stanford was in the red zone or close and multiple times that resulted in interceptions — but it wasn’t like they were losing that battle, it was just more back and forth. Otherwise, there’s been some odd matchups where they were far from dominant in the run, which brings me to...
  • RPOs and unfinished execution helped ASU gash Utah’s defense on the ground. Similarly, the only points Colorado scored against them were on a 10-ish yard run but one that could’ve been stopped prior to the goal line if it weren’t for poor tackling, something you don’t see frequently from the Utes. Otherwise though, they’re not gonna miss much.
  • While they’re still a really good defense, November has been — in classic Utah fashion — less than kind. The month of November they’re allowing 24.25 points per game, and that number goes up to 30 if you take out their suffocating performance against Colorado. Prior to the Utah-Washington game in September, the Utes were allowing only eight points per game, although, granted, that was against much less talented opponents, personnel-wise (NIU and Weber State), who were also running far less dynamic offenses. Once conference play began, their September and October defense was giving up on average 19.66 points per game including in their matchup against Washington, where the Dawgs scored 21. Do with this information what you will.

Bottom Line

The relationship Utah fans and Washington fans have reminds me of the relationship you have with that spider that lives in the corner of your kitchen: You’re afraid of it, and it’s afraid of you, and nobody knows who’s more afraid of whom.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think, as long as I live, I’ll ever be comfortable when Washington and Utah play. Similarly, the sentiment I’ve seen from Utes is that they aren’t having any fun either because this matchup is too full of stress forever and always, amen.

In line with this, it wouldn’t be shocking to see either Gaskin light it up or to see the Utes front seven make things really freaking hard to get any offensive momentum going. If there’s something to be optimistic about, it’s Utah’s slight drop-off during November — especially their struggles against a BYU offense that can at best be described as “alright” and at worst as “.................yikes” — combined with Washington’s offense not crapping the bed against a WSU defense that’s only topped by two teams in the conference not named Washington (those two would be Cal and, you guessed it, Utah). Oh, and Hunter Bryant’s return immediately stretches things out to give Gaskin and Ahmed some breathing room.

But still. Utah’s Utah. I for one will be preparing to not relax for three hours on Friday.

As always, any lurking Utes fans feel free to share your thoughts and insights in the comments.

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