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Opponent Defensive Preview: Utah

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How are they always so. Freaking. Good?

ARIZONA STATE V UTAH Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images

Who needs an intro to Utah football?

Certainly not us.

And we’re off:

Personnel and What to Expect

I mean, do we really need to do this at this point? We know Utah. Regardless of who’s playing where and who graduated and who’s new and blah blah blah... Utah’s defense is Utah’s defense. What more is there to talk about?

The most points they’ve given up all year was 30, in their lone loss to USC. Since then they’ve given up 13, 7, 3, and 0 — the first two to actually decent offenses (WSU and Oregon State) and the last two to one fine offense (ASU) and one terrible offense (Garbers-less Cal which could only score 17 points against Oregon State). Circumstantially, then, Utah’s defense is really similar to Oregon’s coming into their UW matchup, if Oregon’s defense was way more intimidating.

The most notable aspects of the last two games Utah’s played has been that both ASU and Cal’s offenses really rely on the run game. Notably, the Utes aren’t even giving up three yards per carry over the year, although that’s not necessarily a fate all running backs are doomed to when facing them. For one thing, despite ASU’s dismal showing, Eno Benjamin still rushed for 104 yards on 15 carries — 6.9 yards per carry — and that number is still pretty good at 5.1 yards per carry if you take away his long run of 32 yards. Similarly, Max Borghi was able to rush for 51 yards on just eight carries, equal to 6.4 YPC. (On the other hand, Cal and Oregon State’s running games averaged no more than two-point-something yards per carry... Not great.)

So, here’s some numbers:

They’re 3rd in the country in total defense at 231 yards per game and 4.26 yards per play. They’re 15th in the country with nine interceptions — three of which have been returned for touchdowns — and 11th in passing yards with 174.6 per game where they’ve especially peaked the last two weeks against Garbers-less Cal with 60 and true freshman-led ASU with 25. Their red zone defense is 19th in the country with three rushing touchdowns, two passing touchdowns, and four field goals of opponents’ 12 red zone appearances. Those rushing yards per carry are at 2.45 and 56.4 yards per game for best in the country.

And the one that really matters: fourth in the country, allowing 10.3 points per game.

For the guys making that happen, let’s start up front.

Expect to see them often in a 3-3-5 and then some 4-2-5, plus the occasional normal 4-3 (and even, I think I saw once or twice, some dime).

While Utah’s defense is always really good, it makes sense that they’d be particularly good this year. After all, while they did lose a couple key pieces (exclusively to the Seahawks), their focus was always on the trenches, and those dudes pretty much all are back. That means last year’s crew of Bradlee Anae off the edge, John Penisini in the middle, and Leki Fotu are all one year smarter and better as seniors, while sophomore Mika Tafua is still making his mark despite being the youngster. If there is one foundation for this defense, I’d call it here. Anae was First Team All-Pac-12 last year, leads the team with seven sacks, and is a potential All-American candidate. Recently, he was the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week, Pac-12 Defensive Lineman of the Week, and Bednarik Award Player of the Week after his devastation of Arizona State’s offense. Opposite him, Tafua leads the line in tackles even if he’s not the same caliber of monster Anae is when it comes to pressure. And, I suppose, it makes sense he would lead the line in tackles: if the alternative is running toward’s Anae’s side, then yeah, I’d want to call plays about as far away from him as possible. Penisini, meanwhile, was probably the least well-known of Utah’s line coming into last year, but at this point he’s well established as Utah’s version of a Greg Gaines-style, two gap-plugging run-stuffer. If that’s not enough, Leki Fotu is a Vita Vea-esque giant coming off a Pac-12 Defensive Lineman of the Week performance.

We’ve already gone over their dominance in the run, but what’s maybe more impressive is how disciplined they appear in the pass rush; considering the talent this front three/four has, a lesser-coached team could see a bunch of guys relying on individual ability and in the process overshooting or getting out of their rush lanes. What you see instead is one well-oiled unit that rarely breaks contain or gives quarterbacks escape routes. It’s clear watching on tape that each of them trusts the guy next to them completely and isn’t trying to do too much. And that’s why they kick ass.

In other words, yeah, this line is the bomb and frankly, while the future of Washington’s line looks quite good, I’m incredibly jealous of Utah fans for what their present consists of.

Behind them it seems like the linebackers would hurt with the loss of Cody Barton, but it appears like they’re mostly on track. Granted, their job isn’t too hard as long as they make the right reads considering how well the defensive tackles take up gaps up front but, as Washington fans sadly know, it’s not a given that inside linebackers make those right calls *cries into Cheerios*.

The main two whose names you hear the most often would senior Francis Bernard — a transfer from, of all places, BYU — and sophomore Devin Lloyd, the latter of whom had a pick six against Oregon State while rushing the passer. That kind of sums up this group: because Utah uses a 3-3-5 so often, you’re gonna see one of these guys in the pass rush just as often, yet they are athletic and nimble enough to do a lot more than that. Bernard is second on the team in tackles and has two interceptions, too, while Lloyd leads the team in tackles despite this being his first year primarily on defense since last season, the vast majority of his contributions were on special teams.

Building on that, the way this unit is deployed really disguises where pressure will be coming from. That’s a huge part of their success whether dropping all three back into passing lanes, bringing all three in when it looks like they wouldn’t be, or feigning pre-snap that the rush will come from one side and then bringing it opposite, instead. As solely a fan of football (but definitely not as a Washington fan), I think this is my favorite part of this team, offense included. In fact, if I had to pick two “fun factors” on Utah, it would be that coupled with Tyler Huntley’s escapability with improved vision as a passer. But I digress.

On to the secondary.

There really isn’t a weakness on this team. That being said, if there’s a gun to my head, I suppose... I’d have to go with these guys? And really, I can’t emphasize enough how much that’s based on the strengths of the front six/seven more than anything. The fact is that in the one Utah loss — despite how fluky that game was — it came down to overpoweringly great receivers beating the defensive backs in contested catches. Still, though, this unit is quite, quite good, even after losing Marquise Blair as an enforcing safety (also to the Seahawks).

This is also where a lot of core names show up — Julian Blackmon back at safety, Jaylon Johnson back at corner, Javelin Guidry back at nickel... we kind of know what’s here. (Sidenote: the “new guys” here are both seniors, too: safety Terrell Burgess, who’s started every game despite only playing nine last year on defense, and transfer corner Josh Nurse who’s established himself as a starter during the Utes’ last month or so.)

Despite losing a bit of that big-hitting edge that Blair brought to them in years past, these guys still almost always get the job done; they’re fundamentally sound, tackle really well for defensive backs, and just generally don’t screw up. The one not-a-weakness-but-if-you-have-to-pick-a-weakness-this-is-the-weakness they have — which, honestly, is probably the only not-a-weakness-but-if-you-have-to-pick-a-weakness-this-is-the-weakness of the whole defense — is that these guys can kinda sorta maybe a wee bit lose the battle of contested catches against bigger, physical receivers.

So good thing Washington has so many of those...

In all seriousness, that’s the only way Utah’s lost this year, when they played schoolyard-style flyer’s up against USC where Michael Pittman, Tyler Vaughns, and Amon-Ra St. Brown just pushed them around (again, relatively). The fact is that those receivers are 6’4”, 6’2”, and 6’1”, while Utah’s starting five are 6’, 5’9”, 6’1”, 6’3”, and 6’. Other than Guidry being the little guy at nickel, those aren’t huge differences, but they’re just enough where receivers who are willing to be really physical can out-body them if they really go for it. Also, it’s worth noting that the biggest of Utah’s defensive backs is Josh Nurse at 6’3”, who didn’t consistently start for the Utes until after USC. Coincidence? I mean, who knows, honestly.

Overall, this defense simply plays really well in all facets of the game. From what we’ve seen this year, a combination of USC and WSU’s approach certainly seems the most successful, despite the latter only scoring 13 points — but for what it’s worth, the Cougs moved the ball rather well and were about two yards away from another touchdown at one point.

If USC got lucky hucking the ball up more than anything, I think WSU’s game was far more revealing. While the score (38-13) suggests the Utes completely dominated — and I don’t mean to suggest they weren’t clearly the better team, because they were — there were facets of what WSU did that were illuminating. In the end, the Cougs lost for the same reason they’ve lost in the last handful of Apple Cups: Utah tackles really, really well and keeps everything in front of them even when it gets tight. But what we did learn was some of the following:

The Utes will play relatively conservative on the first drive, and as an offense you better take advantage of that. Recognizing the Utes’ zone and countering it with flood concepts to overwhelm one side of the field works. Passing to set up the run works. In fact, it’s the only way that the run works. Utilizing running backs in the passing game works. Throwing short crossing routes never works, unless you’re only trying to get four yards, in which case it works.

So that’s the Utah defense.

Bottom Line

Overall, beating this defense comes down to a string of things that are each the foundation of another key thing. It’s a fun, if also terrifying, engineering project for an offense.

So, if there’s one foundational piece, it’s recognizing that short routes are fine, but relying on them won’t get you far. Which means Eason’s gonna have to look alive for a bit longer than he’d probably like. Which means the offensive line better be on their A game against a defensive front that can wreck people.

If that’s step one, then step two is focusing heavily on Puka Nacua and Hunter Bryant, with a healthy dose of Cade Otton. If we’ve talked about it once, we’ve talked about it 100 times: Washington’s senior receivers can’t out-physical much, and that’s what this game needs.

And, if those guys can maintain step two, that brings us to step three: if that passing game is emphasized, the running backs can actually be decently effective. That’s what Max Borghi (and, somehow, Eno Benjamin despite how anemic ASU’s passing game was) showed us. Utah’s running defense is almost invincible. But not quite.

Then, alongside all of those things, the Dawgs will have the hardest time in the world converting in the red zone considering how Utah thrives on a scrunched up field. So it’s in their best interest to test out some big plays that don’t require the field to get scrunched in the first place. Honestly, if the Huskies win, it’ll almost certainly have to do with that.

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