Morgan Scalley is not interested in becoming known as the manager, mayor or council chair of Sack Lake City.
He just wants to stop the run.
Utah’s defense has lost its status as the country’s top sack-producing group, having registered 55 in 2014. Last season, the Utes' 25 quarterback sacks were the program’s fewest since 2006 and tied for 72nd in the country.
So you would think the number “25” would have been posted somewhere in the Spence and Cleone Eccles Football Center, or least imprinted in Scalley's mind. And you would be wrong.
“That's not the No. 1 statistic we worry about,” Scalley said this week.
And that’s why “205” and “347” are more concerning numbers to him. Those were the rushing yardage totals for Arizona State and Oregon in Utah’s consecutive losses last October, ruining the defense’s otherwise solid season. The Utes ranked No. 2 in the Pac-12 and No. 27 nationally in rushing defense, allowing 131.3 yards. ASU and Oregon far exceeded that figure — especially the Ducks, whose backup quarterback completed only nine passes that afternoon, while their running backs kept exploiting the perimeter of Utah’s defense.
Scalley wants to pressure an opposing quarterback, hitting him often enough to “let him get rattled a little bit,” he said.
Sack Lake City, though? The mythical town may never come back to life. In the era of run-pass options and other offensive schemes that offset or even take advantage of aggressive pass rushers, sacks are tougher than ever to produce in the Pac-12.
“The ball's getting out quicker,” Scalley said. “So if you're just trying to get sacks for sacks' sake, your defensive ends are going to be playing undisciplined football, running up the field all day long just trying to get to the quarterback. And then you're creating creases.”
That's the dilemma for end Bradlee Anae, who's proud to be part of Utah's defensive line tradition and knows the outside world is judging him by sack totals. Anae led the Utes with seven sacks as a sophomore and is expected to be highly productive again, trending toward an NFL career. He also remembers the defense's struggles in stopping the run, explaining why he's already thinking about November when the Utes again meet ASU and Oregon in back-to-back games.
“We have a chip on our shoulder about those games,” he said.
SACK LAKE CITY
Utah defense’s yearly sack totals in the Pac-12 era (with national ranking):
2011 • 30 (T30).
2012 • 29 (T41).
2013 • 39 (T8).
2014 • 55 (1st).
2015 • 37 (T13).
2016 • 43 (T8).
2017 • 25 (T72).
Utah’s defense in the Kyle Whittingham era — entering a 25th season, counting his 10 years as defensive coordinator and one season as the line coach — is framed by an aggressive, blitzing scheme and strong individual performances up front. The Utes play mostly man-to-man coverage in the secondary and have a variety of pressure packages. This season, they will feature linebackers Cody Barton and Chase Hansen, who was an adept blitzer as a safety.
Yet when their pass rush is most effective, it usually stems from defensive linemen with a knack for getting after the quarterback. Other than Anae, that’s what Utah lacked in 2017, three years after Nate Orchard terrorized QBs and one year after Hunter Dimick and Pita Taumoepenu were disruptive forces in Scalley’s first season as defensive coordinator.
It may be unfair to connect the decisions of Filipo Mokofisi and Lowell Lotulelei to quickly halt their NFL pursuits this past spring and their stats as seniors. Their numbers did drop off last year, regardless.
So if the Utes hope to be more harmful to QBs in 2018, they need Leki Fotu and some combination of fellow tackles Hauati Pututau, Pita Tonga and John Penisini to collapse the pocket. On the edge, they need Caleb Repp, Mika Tafua or Maxs Tupai to complement Anae.
Scalley said of Fotu, “There's a guy who understands that running to the football is going to get him a lot of money.”
As for Tupai, Scalley said, “We've been waiting for the light switch to come on, and it's come on.”
That's a good sign for Utah's defensive line, although not quite the kind of catchy slogan that launched the production of those “Sack Lake City” T-shirts.
For the Utes to get where they want to go this season, they’ll have to do less glamorous things defensively. It starts with stopping the run, and making sure this November doesn’t resemble last October.
This is the fourth installment during a series in August about Utah’s position groups. Today: the defensive line.