While Utah’s offense goes in search of an identity this weekend at Oregon, the Utah defense will try to live up to its well-established identity.
In recent weeks, the Utes’ vaunted defense has looked like the wonky reflection you’d see in a fun house mirror. The Utes (4-3, 1-3) will need their defense to return to form against the Ducks (4-4, 1-4) to snap a three-game losing streak Saturday afternoon in Eugene, Oregon.
A defense that has been known for squelching opponents’ possessions swiftly has allowed five touchdown drives of 80 yards or more in the past two games. The top rush defense in the Pac-12 Conference last season has looked, according to its coach, soft against the run at times. What gives?
“We do a very good job early on in drives and all that,” senior co-captain and defensive tackle Filipo Mokofisi said. “Then we make some mistakes, some gap mistakes and some good running backs have hit those holes and hit for a long gain. It’s simple mistakes that we can correct and we can get better at.”
During the losing slide, the Utes have allowed an average of 27 points per game. That number alone isn’t as alarming, particularly considering the offensive struggles have put the defense’s back against the wall in terms of field position and time of possession. The defense also scored a touchdown during that stretch and the Utes’ offense had a turnover returned for a touchdown. The alarm comes from the way things have unfolded.
Stanford, USC and Arizona State averaged 191.7 rushing yards and 5.2 yards per rush against the Utes (USC also passed for 358 yards). A Utah defense that prides itself on pressuring the quarterback and forcing turnovers managed just one sack and four turnovers during that three-game stretch. Three of the turnovers came in the first half at USC.
“Defensively, we didn’t play horribly,” Utes coach Kyle Whittingham said of his team’s loss to Arizona State. “We held them to about 340 yards or so, and that can lead the conference if you can do it every week. But again, it just wasn’t good enough against the run. That is something that has shown up in the last few weeks now. That was due to technique errors. We had 16 missed tackles, which is too many.”
Stopping the running game doesn’t figure to get any easier for the Utes this week. Oregon’s offense features 6-foot, 238-pound senior running back Royce Freeman. The third-leading rusher in the conference this season (957 yards), Freeman became the program’s all-time leader in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns earlier this season.
Freeman has posted back-to-back games of more than 100 yards with 144 yards against Stanford and 160 yards against UCLA, both on the road.
“Royce Freeman is a grown man,” Utah linebackers coach Justin Ena said. “You’ve got to make sure that you are gap sound. Not only gap sound, when you’re in the game — he’s 240 pounds — you’ve got to make sure that you tackle correctly, you take him down. At the same time, it takes one or two guys, maybe three guys, to stop his momentum because he is 240 and he is an NFL back.”
The lack of sacks has been a glaring shortcoming in light of the Utes having led the Pac-12 in sacks twice in the previous three years, and they’ve ranked among the top four each of the past four seasons. The defensive line has been a consistent strength, and that only figured to continue with three returning seniors among the starting unit.
Injuries to senior Kylie Fitts and sophomore Bradlee Anae hampered the Utes’ ability to put pressure on the passer, but part of the Utes’ pass rush issues may have also been opponents such as ASU game-planning against the Utes’ strength.
“The big reason this past week is if you look at all the pass plays, the average was around two seconds where they got it off,” Fitts said. “There’s no way you’re getting to the quarterback in two seconds. We looked it up, there was four plays that was past past two seconds — three or four seconds or five seconds — and all those were max protection where they were keeping seven in the box blocking four.
“We’re not using that as excuses. We know we’ve got to get there. We’ve got to do a better job. Even though they’re max protecting and getting the ball out, we’ve got to find ways to get there.”
UTAH AT OREGON
At Autzen Stadium
Kickoff • 3:45 p.m. MDT
TV • Pac-12 Network
Radio • 700 AM, Sirius 93/XM 197, Internet 971
Records • Utah 4-3, 1-3; Oregon 4-4, 1-4
Series history • Oregon leads 21-9
Last meeting • Oregon 30, Utah 28 (Nov. 19)
About the Ducks • The Ducks have played the past three games without starting quarterback Justin Herbert (broken collarbone). Freshman Braxton Burmeister and redshirt senior Taylor Alie have played in his place. Burmeister has passed for a total of 242 yards, one touchdown and five interceptions in the past three games. He’s also rushed for 54 yards and three touchdowns. … Running back Royce Freeman rushed for 160 yards and eclipsed the program’s all-time rushing record last week against UCLA. He became the 22nd player in FBS history to rush for more than 5,000 yards. … Linebacker La’Mar Winston recorded a career-high 11 tackles as well as one sack against UCLA. The converted safety has 29 tackles this season. Linebacker Troy Dye leads the team with 69 tackles and also has four sacks and one interception.
About the Utes • Wide receiver Darren Carrington II will play his first game against his former team. An Oregon graduate transfer, Carrington led team in receiving yards (606) last season. This season, Carrington leads the Pac-12 in receiving yards per game (92.7) and already has more catches and yards than all of last season. … Sophomore quarterback Tyler Huntley started last week for the first time since suffering a shoulder injury against Arizona on Sep. 22. Huntley passed for 155 yards, but also threw four interceptions. For the season, the first-year starter has thrown for 1,121 yards (224.2 yards per game). … Kicker Matt Gay has been named a midseason All-American by the Associated Press, ESPN, Sporting News and Athlon Sports. Gay leads FBS in field goals per game (2.43) and made field