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Opponent Defensive Preview: Utah Utes

NCAA Football: Utah at Washington Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Los Angeles is in the rearview mirror. On to Utah.

This week the #18 Utes travel to Montlake for the first time since 2020. Since that come-from-behind victory in front of the empty stands of Husky Stadium during the Covid season, both programs have evolved tremendously. UW fell into the depths of the Jimmy Lake era and then experienced a resurgence to CFP aspirations under Kalen DeBoer. Utah on the other hand has risen gradually to reach a new program high-water mark under Kyle Whittingham’s long tenure with a pair of conference titles and Rose Bowl berths.

While both teams have come a long way since 2020, Utah’s recipe for success has remained the same: a bruising run game and a consistently ferocious defense. Defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley’s tenure has yielded defenses that are regularly atop many defensive statistical categories both in the conference and the country, and this year is no different. This weekend’s game will be a match up of strengths where anything could happen.

The Scheme & Personnel

Utah v USC Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images

There isn’t a schematic trick to the Utes’ defense. It’s actually quite vanilla, and that’s kind of the problem. There’s no silver bullet. Utah’s defense is just a plain old well-coached team with a bunch of quality players. Scalley’s unit runs an old school 4-3 based defense with a blend of Cover 1, Cover 2, Cover 3, and Cover 4 looks to keep offenses off rhythm. Like most 4-3 based defenses, Utah uses a lot of 4-2-5 nickel personnel, but they like to leave their LBs out on the field in many situations that other defenses would go with their nickel personnel.

From a play calling perspective, we’ve already mentioned that Utah’s coverage calls are a grab bag of various coverage shells, but for the most part, the Utes like to play zone coverages. Utah’s produce many NFL caliber DBs, but the reason for the zone-heavy approach is because of their strict adherence to the “team defense” philosophy. Because of how well-coached this defense is, coverage defenders are rarely out of place, coverage handoffs are air tight, and there are few opportunities for receivers to find open grass to settle into. Utah also actively deploys their safeties in playmaking roles. Whether it’s as a robber, in Quarters coverage, or as a force player in the run fit, these safeties are looking to break on the ball. All of these things result in a defense that is able to play tight coverage with eyes in the backfield and few isolated 1v1 opportunities deep downfield.

On top of that, Utah has a deep and talented rotation of players to draw on up front. The group is headlined by DE Jonah Elliss who is the national sack leader with 12 sacks on the season. Because of Scalley’s play calling style, Elliss and the rest of the defensive line are arguably the most important unit on this team. Their ability to anchor the line of scrimmage and wreak havoc in the backfield with a 4-man rush allows the back end to make plays on the ball and snuff out runs for minimal gains. Where some defenses bring the blitz to protect their coverage, Utah is able to generate the same pressure while still sitting in their more conservative coverages with opportunities to make plays on the ball.

Keys to the Game

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 30 Washington at Arizona Photo by Christopher Hook/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

This late in the season, our offense’s strengths and weaknesses are well-known to opponents. When playing from a clean pocket, Michael Penix Jr. and our WR corps will torch most defenses for huge games. However, when Penix is facing interior pressure, all bets are off. There are other factors to consider, but ASU brought interior pressure via the blitz and we were held to 0 offensive touchdowns. USC on the other hand was content with rushing three DL and dropping into extra conservative coverages and were torched for 52 points. Again, offensive line and overall team health contributed to some of our struggles against ASU, but it seems pretty clear that pass protection, particularly on the interior, is key to our offensive potential. Utah doesn’t usually blitz up the middle, but I suspect that we’ll see a larger number of blitz calls than usual this weekend.

As far as specific play calling, I wouldn’t be surprised to see us lean into Grubb’s usual formation and personnel grouping tricks. Utah already plays a higher percentage of their snaps out of base personnel compared to other teams. Playing more 12 personnel to encourage that tendency could keep those guys on the field where we can shift into our empty sets to create mismatches between our WRs and their LBs. If Utah doesn’t fall for that trap, the extra TEs could prove valuable to our protection schemes to buy time for our WRs to get open downfield.