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Where has ‘Sack Lake City’ gone? Utes are searching for answers, too

Utes near the bottom in 2017 a year after leading Pac-12 in sacks

Steve Griffin / The Salt Lake Tribune Utah Utes defensive tackle Filipo Mokofisi (45) sacks Indiana Hoosiers quarterback Richard Lagow (21) during the Foster Farms Bowl at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara California Wednesday December 28, 2016.

Sack Lake City is on hiatus.

A year after Utah yet again led the Pac-12 Conference in sacks, the Utes still are searching for answers to why they’ve underachieved so mightily in a department they’re known for dominating. Utah (5-4, 2-4) is tied for second-to-last place in the conference in sacks with 15 with three conference games left.

The Utes finished No. 1 with 43 sacks a year ago.

Utah had an astounding 55 sacks in 2014.

“It’s just been … slowed way down,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “We can’t put our finger on it. We’re bringing pressure about the same percentage of the time this year as in years past.”

But the Utes aren’t, as they say, “getting home” to the opposing quarterback with regularity. Not even close compared to previous years. Senior defensive tackles Lowell Lotulelei and Filipo Mokofisi said this week that they’ve noticed tweaks in offensive schemes against Utes this season.

Lotulelei said he believes teams have made a concerted effort to get the ball out faster, not allotting the Utes those precious extra seconds to win 1-on-1 battles that lead to sacks. Mokofisi said more offenses have instilled maximum-protection sets this year, too.

“It’s frustrating,” Lotulelei said, “because the last few years, we’ve had way more.”

“I can’t really tell you,” Mokofisi said. “I think it’s just a matter of if we want to get there. Obviously quarterbacks are getting it out fast, and it’s hard to get to them when they’re getting it out, but when it comes down to it, we just need to get the quarterback.”

Utah has been able to rely on an edge-rush specialists the last four seasons, which it doesn’t have this year. Nate Orchard, Hunter Dimick and Pita Taumoepenu were always a threat on the outside, which allowed every other member of the line to get closer to the quarterback.

“No excuses,” Whittingham said. “We’ve just got to pick it up. The defensive line knows that. That’s what we’re known for, putting pressure on the quarterback and we’ve done a very average — at best — job of that this year.”

Loud noises

Several Washington State players have noted that Rice-Eccles Stadium is one of the more intimidating venues in the Pac-12 Conference. At least those still around from the last time the Cougars and Utes met back in 2014. In his Monday news conference, Wazzu coach Mike Leach chimed in with his own two cents.

“I don’t know if it’s such a tough environment,” he said. “It’s a really nice stadium and a real pretty setting.”

Then Leach leveled with his guys.

“The only thing I can see that makes it a tough place to play is it’s loud,” he said. “I view it as the second-loudest place in the conference, after Oregon.”

Agasiva inching closer

Utah’s offensive line could receive a boost this weekend against the No. 19 Cougars. Whittingham noted Monday that starting guard Jordan Agasiva, who has missed the last two weeks with an apparent lower leg injury suffered in the 30-10 loss against Arizona State on Oct. 21, might be back in the mix.

“Hopefully we get him back this week,” Whittingham said.

Utah’s offensive line has rotated players in and out due to injury since Agasiva has been out, including junior Alani Havili-Katoa and sophomore Paul Toala.

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