Utes defense is even better than Kyle Whittingham expected

In the Pac-12, the Utes rank second in defense and second to last in offense.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Players walk off the field as the Utah Utes lose to the USC Trojans, NCAA football at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020.

The conventional wisdom about the University of Utah football team is don’t worry about the defense.

No matter who graduated, who left for the NFL draft, regardless of how young the athletes are, the Utes are going to play defense. Still, with nine defensive starters gone from last season’s 11-win team, though, even the most optimistic observer knew the squad may take a step backward during this pandemic-fueled season.

However one wants to judge what a step backward actually means, one thing is clear through three games: Utah’s defense has outperformed its offense, which was not what the coaches expected.

“It hasn’t played out exactly as I thought it would,” Utes coach Kyle Whittingham said Monday as Utah prepares to play at No. 21 Colorado on Friday night. “The defense seems to be much more productive and further ahead than any of us thought, and we’re not quite as productive on offense right now. We have a ways to go.

“I didn’t see that coming based on training camp, and that’s why you can never put a whole lot of stock in what’s going on when you’re playing against each other because you don’t get a great perspective.”

Utah’s defense bent late Saturday night, but it did not break in getting stops on consecutive series to help secure a 30-24 win over Oregon State at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

The Beavers netted 335 yards of total offense, but Chance Nolan, making his first career start at quarterback with Tristan Gebbia unavailable due to a leg injury, finished just 20 for 38 for 202 yards, a fourth-quarter touchdown pass and an interception.

Whittingham singled out the secondary Monday, which was a giant question mark entering the season. Among the five projected starters, none of them had started a game, and two of them, cornerback Clark Phillips III and strong safety Nate Ritchie, are true freshmen.

Phillips, Utah’s highest-rated recruit ever, specifically has answered the call. With starting nickel Malone Mataele unavailable against Washington on Nov. 28, Phillips slid inside to that spot, then did so again in the second half against Oregon State after Mataele was ejected late in the first half for targeting.

“He did a great job, given the circumstances, being thrust in there, and having not a lot of practice reps,” said Whittingham, who noted the coaching staff always tries to get Phillips some practice reps at nickel just in case. “Clark has been a great player for us so far this year. Him, (freshman cornerback Faybian Marks), Nate Ritchie, all three of those true freshman kids have done a good job and we’re excited about their future.”

Through three games, Utah is second in the Pac-12 in total defense (350.7 yards per game). Conversely, the Utes offense, with graduate transfer quarterback Jake Bentley at the wheel, freshman running back Ty Jordan emerging as the No. 1 backfield option and a host of veteran receivers, ranks second-to-last in the Pac-12 and 92nd nationally in total offense (363 yards per game).

Whittingham continued to lament on Monday that his offense was in the red zone three times in the first 18 minutes of the game, and only came away with nine points.

All three drives featured either an overthrow in the end zone, or an errant throw that may have wound up in a touchdown. Junior tight end Brant Kuithe, who broke out Saturday night with eight catches for 76 yards, was the intended receiver on the errant throw and one of the overthrows.

“I can’t really look back on it, but just going through the multiple plays, a lot of blown coverages,” Kuithe said. “I think everyone really knows what happened, so there’s really not much point of going into it.”

Whittingham weighs in on Malone Mataele ejection

Late in the first half, with the Beavers inside the 15-yard line, Nolan completed a 10-yard pass to Trevon Bradford, who was leveled by Mataele. Refs called targeting on the redshirt sophomore, who was ejected after replay upheld the call.

Targeting in college football is partially defined as “lowering the head before attacking by initiating forcible contact with the crown of his helmet.” By the letter of the law, maybe Mataele’s ejection could be considered legitimate, but Whittingham disagreed.

“I wouldn’t have called it if I was the official,” Whittingham said. “I thought that our guy got underneath the headgear of the opposing player and was trying to get in there with his shoulder. I’m not an official, but if I was an official, I wouldn’t have called it. I’m not saying I’m right, that’s just my own opinion.”

With the ejection taking place in the first half, Mataele served his one-half suspension during Saturday night’s second half and will be available Friday at Colorado.