Utah football: Utes' defense ready for another good quarterback
The Utah Utes haven't had much of a chance to study film of Washington State, but at this point the Utes have a good idea of what to expect Saturday a quarterback with very good accuracy.
From Pullman, Wash., to Tucson, Ariz., and all points in between, Utah's challenges this year have been a league full of sharp-shooting quarterbacks.
Saturday, Washington State (4-6, 2-5) unveiled a new one as Connor Halliday passed for a freshman school record 494 yards in the Cougars' 37-27 upset of Arizona State.
The Cougars haven't ruled out starting senior Marshall Lobbestael, who has started most of the season in place of injured Jeff Tuel, but the Utes (6-4, 3-4) assume they'll see plenty of the freshman as they prepare for yet another prolific passing attack.
"For whatever reason, this league is full of accurate passers," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "This guy has just one game under his belt, but he seems to fit the same mold as the other guys."
Luckily for the Utes, the defense has withstood the Pac-12's offensive challenges better than even Whittingham had hoped it would.
The Utes rank first or second in seven defensive categories, but it's the pass efficiency of the opponents that is most notable to Whittingham, a former defensive coordinator.
Utah's opponents are averaging 56.47 percent in pass efficiency, which is a little higher than what the Utes have allowed in the past but good enough to satisfy Whittingham.
"In past years it was around 50 percent or less," Whittingham said. "But that is good with the caliber of quarterbacks we are facing week in and week out."
Whittingham compared the 6-foot-4, 181-pound Halliday to Arizona quarterback Nick Foles and Arizona State quarterback Brock Osweiler for the way he likes to stand in the pocket.
The Utes have played well against that style of quarterback. Osweiler threw for 325 yards against the Utes, but the defense was at a disadvantage thanks to three straight turnovers.
Foles passed for 199 yards and threw two interceptions and was sacked twice.
The Utes are giving up just 234.9 passing yards a game to rank fourth in the conference.
Utah's defensive line gets the credit for setting the tone of the defense. Utah has 11 sacks in the last three games and is averaging 2.8 a game for the season.
Knowing Halliday is inexperienced has lineman Star Lotulelei more eager than ever to get on the field against him Saturday.
"You always want to hit the quarterback and get after him and rattle him," he said. "Him being a freshman, I think if we get him uncomfortable and get him rattled, that will play a big part."
Cornerback Conroy Black, who had two interceptions in the Utes' 31-6 win over UCLA, said Utah's man coverage has improved as the season has progressed, too, making the Utes more confident and dangerous than ever.
"We use a lot of disguise and that gets a lot of young quarterbacks in trouble and we're going to try to do that this week," he said.
Where the Utes stand in Pac-12, nationally
Utah has a dominating defense, ranking at the top of the league in several categories:
Category Number Pac-12 rank NCAA rank
Scoring defense 19.2 ppg No. 1 No. 17
Interceptions 14 No. 1 No. 9
Opp. 4th-down conversions 4-17 No. 1 No. 3
Red zone D 19-27 No. 1 No. 6
Pass-efficiency D 114.96 No. 2 No. 22
Turnovers forced 25 No. 2 No. 8
Turnover margin 0.60 No. 2 No. 21
Utah at Wash. State
P Saturday, 3 p.m.
TV • KJZZ