This might be tough to fathom, but Utah’s defense entered 2017 with added motivation to further heighten the characteristics it is already known for. Senior linebacker Kavika Luafatasaga said the Utes, believe it or not, needed to be more physical, flying to the ball when a player hits the open field or punishing an opponent with a hit when granted the opportunity.
No. 20 Utah (4-0) took those self-instructed provocations to heart.
Known annually for sporting one of the most imposing, game-changing defenses, the Utes are either atop or near the top of several defensive statistical categories in the Pac-12 Conference a third of the way through the year. Utah is No. 1 in rushing defense (87 yards per game), pass defense efficiency (96.3), interceptions (nine) and turnovers forced (14). It ranks second in turnover ratio at plus-6.
“Obviously it’s cool to see that type of stuff,” senior defensive tackle Filipo Mokofisi said. “Our rush defense is about to get tested with its biggest challenge, so we’ve got to hold that up.”
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said his team’s ability to generate so many takeaways early on is one of the main elements to the unblemished start. The Utes, Whittingham said, “weren’t great” against the run in its 30-24 win at Arizona on Sept. 22. Utah’s No. 1 conference ranking will be put to the test this week as Stanford (3-2) and its star running back Bryce Love roll into Rice-Eccles Stadium.
The electric Love has 1,088 yards on 98 carries in just five games.
Luafatasaga said he doesn’t pay much attention to the Utes leading so many defensive categories. There isn’t time to be concerned with that with what awaits Saturday night in Salt Lake City.
“For me, I feel like we haven’t been tested yet like how we’re going to be tested this week,” the Utah senior said. “We’re really excited for just to really put an emphasis on run defense that we have. … We just need to come out and do our thing.”
Whittingham, once again, stood by his fall camp prediction that his young secondary could be one of the best positional groups to date.
“The biggest — I won’t say surprise, because it wasn’t a surprise to me — is the way the secondary’s played, and the ballhawks that we’ve got back there and the way we perform,” he said.
Which QB will it be?
“We’ll see,” Whittingham said at his weekly Monday news conference.
Sophomore starter Tyler Huntley left Utah’s win at Arizona two weeks ago with an apparently right shoulder injury after being tackled on a passing attempt. Asked of his status as of Monday, Whittingham said, “Continuing to go through the evaluation process every day and we’ll see what transpires for this weekend.”
Senior Troy Williams will start if Huntley cannot play.
Utah’s coach also said there are “a lot” of positions that are up in the air ahead of Stanford’s visit this weekend. While Luafatasga said he’s feeling good to go after being banged up in Tucson, Ariz., question marks about the likes of starting defensive ends Kylie Fitts and Bradlee Anae remain. Fitts was last seen on crutches at the end of the game at Arizona.
“We’ll see what happens with a lot of our guys that got banged in the last game, whether or not they’re ready,” Whittingham said. “[We] never really concern ourselves with injuries, if you can’t play, you can’t play. The next guy that’s out there has to do the job.”
Holliday a UTEP candidate?
Utah wide receivers coach Guy Holliday was named in a report by ESPN.com Sunday as a potential candidate for the now-open head coaching vacancy at UTEP. Former head coach Sean Kugler stepped down Sunday after an 0-5 start. Holliday spent five years at UTEP from 2008 to 2012 as wide receivers coach and UTEP’s recruiting coordinator.