Utes’ defense celebrates its dwindling numbers

(Rick Bowmer | The Associated Press) Utah defensive end Mika Tafua (42) tackles California running back Christopher Brown Jr. (34) in the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019, in Salt Lake City.

The numbers are getting smaller and smaller, and that’s making Leki Fotu’s smile wider and wider.

Fotu, Utah football’s 6-foot-5, 335-pound slab of a defensive tackle, grinned when he heard the Utes had held Cal to a total of 83 yards of offense Saturday during a 35-0 victory over the Golden Bears at Rice-Eccles Stadium. It was the first shutout Utah has recorded in Pac-12 play since joining the conference in 2011.

Fotu’s smile really opened up, though, when he learned that with the meager 23 yards Cal gained on the ground, the Utes would likely surpass Wisconsin as the stingiest run defense in the country.

Utah entered the game allowing an average of 65.3 yards per game, which ranked them second nationally behind the Badgers’ 60.9 yards per game average going into Saturday. But Wisconsin allowed Ohio State to chew up 264 yards on the ground in a 38-7 loss Saturday. That, combined with Utah’s brutal treatment of Cal’s rushers, will likely move the needle for the Utes.

“For a defensive line, we take a lot of pride in that. We try to be the No. 1 D-line, especially in the run game,” Fotu said. “We’re trying to establish that this year. Coming off this game, we felt we dominated the line of scrimmage up front. That’s something that starts at the beginning of the week. It doesn’t just happen like that.

“To hear that the rankings could go up rushingwise? Pretty happy about that.”

The senior finished with three tackles, including 1.5 for a loss and a sack of Cal freshman quarterback Spencer Brasch. That play alone cost the Bears 13 yards. A fumble forced by defensive back Nick Nurse set the Bears back another 26 yards. Jordan Duncan became Cal’s rushing leader after gaining a total of 16 yards on two carries.

In comparison, Utah racked up 231 rushing yards against a Golden Bears team heralded for its own defense. It entered the game ranked 62nd in the nation and seventh in the Pac-12 by allowing an average of 150.9 yards per game.

The Utes didn’t give up much more ground in the air. They held Brasch to 7 of 19 passing. His longest completion went just nine yards. The team entered the game allowing an average of 209.5 passing yards per game this year, 40th best in the nation.

“They’ve got momentum, and the whole team’s got momentum right now,” coach Kyle Whittingham said of his defense.

One begets the other, it seems. The Utah defense hasn’t allowed more than one rushing touchdown in a game this season and hasn’t allowed one at all since the loss to USC on Sept. 20. What’s more, the Utes haven’t allowed more than 10 points since the second half of their win over Washington State on Sept. 28. They shut out the Cougars in the second half, gave up last-minute touchdown to Oregon State with their reserves in the game and held Arizona State to three total points. Then they blanked Cal.

Talk about dwindling numbers.

Senior defensive back Terrell Burgess, who led the Utes with six tackles, including one for a loss, said it’s all part of Utah defense’s greater goal.

“We know exactly what we’re after,” Burgess said. “We’re just trying to make this season special.”