Utah fans get hot and cold this year, while the defense remains steady

(Rick Bowmer | The Associated Press) Utah linebacker Devin Lloyd (20) tackles Arizona State quarterback Jayden Daniels (5) during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019, in Salt Lake City.

Utah football fans have endured either unseasonable heat or driving rain in the Utes’ four home games this year. Their reward is watching some of the best defense the home team has ever played, once Utah’s game vs. Northern Illinois in early September moved past the noon hour.

After allowing 17 first-half points to the Huskies, Utah has held opponents to 16 points in 14 quarters at Rice-Eccles Stadium, including Saturday’s 21-3 victory over Arizona State. The Sun Devils’ field goal came after a fumble recovery at the Utah 18-yard line.

Those three points and Oregon State’s last-minute touchdown in Utah’s 52-7 road win are all the Utes have given up in their last 10 quarters of Pac-12 play, starting at halftime of a 38-13 defeat of Washington State. The three opponents have gone a combined 7 of 38 on third-down conversions, with defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley mixing up his schemes to frustrate quarterbacks.

ASU freshman Jayden Daniels completed 4 of 18 passes for 25 yards. In the NFL statistical formula, the Sun Devils would have had 8 net passing yards, subtracting Bradlee Anae’s three sacks for 17 yards.

“Pass defense starts at the line of scrimmage,” Ute coach Kyle Whittingham said. “Our front four applied pressure all night long, never let the quarterback get comfortable.”


Saturday, 8 p.m.

TV: FS1.

The Utes (6-1, 3-1 Pac-12) are “in a good spot right now,” Whittingham said. One problem remains: Who’s going to beat USC for them?

The Trojans (3-1), who throttled Arizona 41-14, have the tiebreaker over Utah. If Oregon defeats USC, for example, and Utah wins its last five games, the Utes will return to the Pac-12 championship game. That would require the Utes winning at Washington, where ESPN’s Football Power Index gives them a 41.3% chance of doing so — although that number keeps rising.

Three takeaways

• Utah’s defense keeps making the buildup of opponents seem silly.

Offenses quarterbacked by Washington State's Anthony Gordon, Oregon State's Jake Luton and Daniels all were framed as major threats, after Utah allowed 30 points in the loss to USC. The Utes keep answering those challenges.

Utah gave up 100-plus rushing yards to ASU's Eno Benjamin for the second year in a row, but Ute cornerback Jaylon Johnson shut down star receiver Brandon Aiyuk. “One catch … and that's a tribute to Jaylon,” Whittingham said. “He essentially took him out of the game, completely.”

• Utah needs quarterback Tyler Huntley to be healthy for Washington in two weeks.

The Utes could get by Saturday at home vs. California without Huntley, who didn’t play in the fourth quarter against ASU after injuring his leg in the second quarter. Whittingham said he would know more abut Huntley after further examination. Don’t expect any clarity Monday, though, other than perhaps Whittingham saying the injury is not season-ending. Questions also exist about left tackle Darrin Paulo, who left the game in the third quarter.

Drew Lisk replaced Huntley briefly in the second quarter and extended the drive by hitting Zack Moss for 14 yards (plus a 15-yard targeting penalty) on third and 14. Jason Shelley then played in the fourth quarter but looked more skittish than last season, when he started five games in Huntley’s absence.

• Moss earned his rushing record.

Moss' 32-yard touchdown run with 5:24 remaining created a nice convergence, clinching the win and making him the school's all-time rushing leader. Just getting the 55 yards he needed took a long time, as his first 20 carries netted 48 yards.

“Those yards were tough, hard-fought yards,” Whittingham said. Moss finished with 99 yards on 25 attempts, with 10 yards in losses.


Utah's career rushing yardage chart:

3,264 – Zack Moss (2016-present).

3,219 – Eddie Johnson (1984-88).

2,995 – Tony Lindsay (1977-80).

2,773 – Devontae Booker (2014-15).

2,630 – Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala (1995-97).

Player of the game

Bradlee Anae. The Utes exploited ASU's young offensive line, effectively scheming against the Sun Devils' use of extra blockers on Anae. Whittingham said he told Anae he would get three sacks and “I'll be darned, he got 'em.”

Anae has seven sacks this season and needs six more to break Hunter Dimick's career record.

Play of the game

Huntley’s 16-yard pass to Derrick Vickers on fourth-and-8 from the ASU 29-yard line in the second quarter. Vickers’ catch was one of only six for Utah’s receivers Saturday (although Jaylen Dixon ran for a 10-yard TD). A roughing-the passer penalty moved the ball to the ASU 6, and Moss’ touchdown three plays later made it 14-0.

Without that score, the Utes really would have agonized in the second half. Huntley's completion came after he missed six plays due to the injury and was “begging to go back in,” Whittingham said.

Up next

California (4-3, 1-3) has its own quarterbacking issues, after Devin Modster limped off the field in a 21-17 loss to Oregon State. Modster has filed in for starter Chase Garbers, who was playing well until being injured in September. The Bears may need freshman Spencer Brasch on Saturday (8 p.m.).

Cal’s defense is sound, having held 14 straight opponents under 25 points.