Through all the ups and downs, Utes' defense a rock
For the first three games of the year, Utah defensive end Derrick Shelby always seemed a half-step slow in locking down the opposing quarterback for a sack.
He could get there, but he just couldn't wrap the guy up.
"It was so frustrating," he said.
As anyone who follows the Utes should know, Shelby's frustrations vanished after his national award-winning performance against Pitt. Gone with them was anything resembling a weak link on Utah's defense.
The Utes, who had six sacks against Pitt, boast one of the best defenses in the league, ranking second in the Pac-12 in every category except passing defense, where they are No. 3.
Having such a strong showing would be impressive for any team, but it is particularly good for Utah's defenders, who consistently have been put in bad situations by Utah's struggling offense.
The Utes are allowing just 20.5 points a game, the sixth consecutive year Utah opponents are averaging less than three touchdowns a game.
Of the 15 touchdowns scored against the Utes this year, one was a fumble recovery and three have come against special teams, including two by Pitt last Saturday, bringing the real defensive total to just 11 TDs allowed.
The secret to their success? It's nothing but hard work and discipline that is paying off, the Utes say.
"Our defense is so disciplined," defensive tackle Star Lotulelei said. "Everybody plays their assignments, and no one is selfish. No one makes a play unless it is coming right at them."
Such focus means the Utes rarely allow big plays, which translates into a rush defense that gives up just 94.5 yards per game. The one blemish was the second half of the Washington game, when Huskies running back Chris Polk rushed for 145 of his 189 yards. And some of that second-half success could be blamed on the five turnovers committed by Utah's offense which gave the defense little time to rest.
What has been more typical of the Utes was their effort against Pitt, in which Ray Graham, the nation's second-leading rusher, was held to just 46 yards.
"You couldn't have asked for a much better effort than that," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "It was a solid performance start to finish."
Yet the Utes believe they can be even better, particularly now that they are getting more pressure on the quarterback.
Prior to Saturday, the Utes had just nine sacks through their first five games, an uncharacteristically low number for a unit that prides itself on smothering quarterbacks.
The Utes have improved thanks to Shelby's recent efforts, and successful minor adjustments such as playing linebacker Trevor Reilly more at defensive end and linebacker Brian Blechen at safety. Blechen, who started the season at outside linebacker, was forced back to his old position when safety Keith McGill went down with an injury.
"We've improved the most getting pressure on the quarterback from the first game," Whittingham said. "A lot of that credit goes to our defensive ends and safeties. We're doing a good job of blitzing, collapsing the pocket, and that is helping us out."
Getting that pressure makes everyone's job easier, linebacker Matt Martinez said.
"We got a lot of confidence last week, seeing how good we can be," he said. "Our defensive line is playing great. We're getting pressure on the quarterback, and when you've got 300-pound guys getting on a quarterback, it makes it real tough for them to scramble. We want to perform like that every week. We can't stop there."
The Utes are always looking for improvement, even as well as they are playing defensively. But Whittingham seems hard-pressed to find an area in which he can be critical.
"There isn't one particular item, but it's an ongoing process," he said. "You always look back each week to see what each Saturday's deficiencies were."
Those deficiencies are becoming fewer and fewer.
Utah's scoring defense under Kyle Whittingham:
Utah defensive rankings
Category Avg. Pac-12 NCAA
Rushing Defense 94.5 2 13
Passing Defense 231.8 3 T-76
Pass Efficiency Defense 116.8 2 31
Total Defense 326.3 2 25
Scoring Defense 20.5 2 28
Utah at Cal
P Saturday, 5 p.m.
TV • KJZZ
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