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Opponent Defense Preview: Utah

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They’re always good. This year’s no exception.

Utah v Arizona Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

And Pac-12 play begins.

While, as a Husky fan, I’m happy to be playing Utah earlier in the season when half the team isn’t injured and the Utes’ offense is still figuring their stuff out, the defense is gonna be a [expletive redacted] to get around.

But really, is that surprising? That’s Utah, every year. They could lose legitimately every defensive starter and still the next year they’d come back around, somehow loaded with players that’ll make your team hurt. (It’s seriously a wonder to me how not every defensive line recruit doesn’t have Utah as their dream school? Why any tackle or end would pick UCLA or whoever over the Utes — after the consistent insane success they’ve had — blows my mind.)

So, with that in mind, here’s what to know for Saturday:

Personnel and What to Expect

At this point, Utah’s defensive dominance is so well-known to us all that it feels redundant to write up something on them in 2018. No matter who they lose to graduation or the NFL, there’s always some under-the-radar gem ready to go the next year.

To begin, their strength this year has been in the pass rush, secondary, and linebackers — although, knowing Utah, somebody will emerge to become a run-stopping force sooner rather than later.

While the offense started out a bit slow in the season opener against Weber State, the defense can hardly be blamed for anything; the lone touchdown in that game was on a Weber State offensive drive that began on the Utes’ two yard line. That trend continued against Northern Illinois, whose only scores were two field goals in the first and fourth quarter. If you’ve been paying attention: yes, Utah’s only allowed one touchdown in two games, and that was only because the scorers of said touchdown only had to go two yards to do it.

Against NIU’s run-heavy offense, they played a lot of 4-3, although showed a fair amount of 3-3-5 nickel and some 2-4-5 as well. It’d probably be wise to expect more of the latter against Washington. What few pass plays the Huskies (the Northern Illinois type) did get off weren’t very effective; similarly to your Huskies (the Washington type), the Utes’ defense doesn’t allow little plays to turn explosive.

In the specific units, the defensive line loses former All-Pac-12 tackle Lowell Lotulelei along with Filipo Mokofisi. Fortunately for the Utes and unfortunately for opponents, they’ve still got the sophomore and junior group of Hauati Pututau, Pita Tonga, Leki Fotu, and John Penisini, the latter of which has had a particularly good first two weeks. In other words, while the interior line is ostensibly “rebuilding,” the reality is that they’ve got a healthy rotation of playmakers who are neither inexperienced nor previously peaked. So, not only are they pretty freaking good now, but they’re gonna be even better next year.

That’s pretty scary for opposing offenses and it’s not even the probable strength of the line.

The end combination of Bradlee Anae and Mika Tafua are incredibly quick and have wreaked havoc on opposing quarterbacks in the pass rush: they held Northern Illinois to a QBR of 12 (no, that’s not a typo) with only 111 yards passing, and Weber State? Thirteen yards in the air. No, that’s not a typo, either. Basically, Anae’s continuing from where he left off last year, when he had seven sacks and 10 tackles for loss.

Behind them, the linebackers lose Sunia Tauteoli and Kavika Luafatasaga, but Sr Cody Barton and Jr Donavan Thompson are experienced and talented replacements; Thompson started four games last year and played in all the rest, while Barton also started four, played in all the others, and had four sacks. Barton, especially so far, has had an ominous presence on the field and seems to be involved in every play imaginable. Most significant in the linebackers, though, is the addition of Chase Hansen, the former safety who, at this point, feels like he’s been terrorizing opposing offenses for millennia. Hansen was this week’s Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week after picking up two sacks and a pick-6. Yeah, he’s good.

Then there’s the secondary which — it seems impossible that this could be true given how loaded the other units are — might be the best of the group.

Sure, they lose Hansen, but safety Marquise Blair is back after an injury in late 2017, corners Julian Blackmon and Jaylon Johnson are beasts even given that Johnson’s just a sophomore and had four interceptions as a true freshman last year, safety Corrion Ballard hits like a mad man, forcing a fumble against NIU... You get it. Johnson especially has stood out as smart at diagnosing plays and not shy at getting involved in the run game and, in that way, reminds one of Kevin King.

If you need more reminders of how good the secondary is, scroll up a few paragraphs to the part on their pass-rushers for a reminder of how well (or not) Weber State and NIU did when they tried to throw the ball. (If you’ve already forgotten, the answer is: Not well at all.)

Bottom Line

Other than Auburn (and maybe including Auburn), this is the most difficult defense Washington will see all year. The good thing is that Washington will be the most difficult offense the Utes have faced so far.

Accordingly, I expect the Dawgs to have a similar game plan to what they brought out against the Tigers but with a bit heavier presence in the running game. As far as the pass, NIU didn’t really dare to throw much downfield and Weber State was clearly outmatched, talent-wise. Given Washington’s emphasis in the air on mid-range passing two weeks into the season, it’d surprise me if they don’t challenge that again against the Utes and provide Browning with routes where he can get a quick release out.

Unlike against the Auburn defense, wherein the Huskies really had to establish downfield air threats early for success, I’d argue they have to establish a significant ground threat with Gaskin and Ahmed pretty early on; this secondary isn’t afraid to come up in the run game and, if that becomes productive quick on Saturday, getting defensive backs to bite on play-action is probably the best bet against a defense that allows incredibly few explosive plays.

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