Utah’s defense is historic, but tougher tests are coming, starting with Oregon in Pac-12 title game

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley, shown during a September game vs. Idaho State, is a Broyles Award finalist, thanks to his unit's No. 3 ranking in total defense.

Julian Blackmon's view of Utah's defense is better than anyone's. As the free safety, the last defender in the alignment, he can watch plays unfold from a unique perspective.

Blackmon likes what he sees, in a role he describes as “being able to watch greatness in front of me.”

He also makes his share of tackles, interceptions and pass breakups, as one of seven Ute defensive players who made the Pro Football Focus Pac-12 Team of the Year for their grades on every play. Blackmon and at least four defensive teammates will play in the Senior Bowl all-star game in Alabama, where Utah will be represented like no other school since the 1980s.

With the disclaimer that the Utes now may face two (or three) offenses that are better than any opponents so far, this defense is historic. That’s true in terms of NFL-level talent and performance, as Utah evokes comparisons to Arizona’s famed “Desert Swarm” defenses of the 1990s and USC’s 2008 defense in Pac-12 history.

The Utes will challenge Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert and one of the country’s best offensive lines in Friday’s Pac-12 championship game at Santa Clara, Calif. The Ducks are more likely to approach the four-touchdown efforts of USC and Washington against Utah this season than be held to Utah’s averages of 56.3 rushing yards, 241.6 total yards and 11.3 points allowed — all ranking in the top three nationally.

Postseason games count in the annual statistics, and the Utes will have trouble maintaining that level of play. Yet they’re in the conversation for the best defense of recent Pac-12 history. That ’08 Trojan defense didn’t feature a lot of NFL prospects, other than linebackers Brian Cushing, Ray Maualuga and Clay Matthews, but held opponents to 9.0 points and 221.8 yards.

Similarly, those ’90s Arizona defenses of the Dick Tomey coaching era lacked star power, but were ferocious against the run, allowing only 65.1 yards in 1992 and 30.1 yards in ’93 (in 11-game regular seasons).

As for modern-era school records, Utah is barely off the pace of 239.3 total yards allowed in 1953 and easily will beat the 1981 team’s mark of 90.0 rushing yards allowed.

A defense coordinated by Broyles Award finalist Morgan Scalley gives Utah a genuine chance to win a conference title and advance to the Rose Bowl or the College Football Playoff. There may never be another Utah defense like this one with so many pro prospects in one draft, including junior cornerback Jaylon Johnson, who may be the highest-drafted Ute player in April.

Johnson and six seniors — Blackmon, safety Terrell Burgess, linebacker Francis Bernard, end Bradlee Anae and tackles Leki Fotu and John Penisini — made the PFF all-conference team. The other four starters also have performed well. Sophomore linebacker Devin Lloyd is the team’s leading tackler, sophomore end Mika Tafua has 6½ tackles for loss and four fumble recoveries and junior nickel back Javelin Guidry and senior cornerback Josh Nurse (backed up by senior Tareke Lewis) have been solid in coverage.

The irony of Utah’s dominance is it keeps the players from compiling big individual statistics, other than Anae’s 12½ sacks in 12 games. That’s because the Utes are so successful on third down, ranking 10th with a 29.4% conversion rate, that they get off the field. And then Utah’s offense sustains long drives that keep the defense rested. Opponents have run only 57.5 plays, the fewest against Utah in more than 60 years.

The defense's standards are so high that Anae expressed disappointment after Colorado scored two touchdowns in Utah's 45-15 rout last Saturday. Coming to Utah, Anae said, “Right away, you just know what's expected of you. It's a very demanding program overall.”

Scalley will have to rebuild his defense next year, but he’s earning his $820,000 salary this year by maximizing his talent — especially the safeties, whom he personally coaches. “I write down everything he says, just because’s a genius,” Blackmon, a Pro Football Focus All-American as the Utah defense’s highest-graded player. “I’m happy the nation’s noticing it, that he’s really that smart of a guy. It’s because of him that we’re where we are defensively, no doubt.”

Scalley is one of four defensive coordinators among the five finalists for the Broyles Award, given to the country’s top assistant coach. LSU passing game coordinator Joe Brady is the favorite.



When • Friday, 6 p.m. MT

TV • Ch. 4