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Utah’s defense has had problems, and they might not get better in 2021

Utes gave up 260 rushing yards to Oregon State last weekend, and rank just eighth in the Pac-12 in scoring defense

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The University of Utah football team takes the field as they host the Arizona Sun Devils in Pac-12 action at Rice-Eccles Stadium, Oct. 10, 2021.

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Leaving Portland on Sunday morning following Utah’s 42-34 loss at Oregon State, I had every intention of using this space to dissect the defensive woes that led to the loss, of which there were many.

Then, Kyle Whittingham made an interesting point on Monday.

“I think our defense is going to be fine in the long run, and I’m talking beyond this year,” Whittingham said. “We keep going back to it, but you have seven, eight, nine, 10 freshmen that are playing considerably, you’re going to take some lumps.

“There’s no way around it, you can’t not have that happen.”

That isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement for this defense with five games to go and winning the Pac-12 South still on the table, but it was at least a bit of honesty.

Against the Beavers, six defensive players with freshman eligibility started — tackles Junior Tafuna and Aliki Vimahi, defensive end Van Fillinger, linebacker Karene Reid, and cornerbacks Faybian Marks and Clark Phillips III.

Some of that is because of circumstance. Viane Moala is out for the season, so in came Tafuna, who has played well. JT Broughton is out for the season, so in came Marks, who hadn’t spent significant time on the field until roughly a month ago.

Beyond those six, safety Kamo’i Latu has played a ton, defensive end Xavier Carlton has started a couple of times, defensive tackle Tennessee Pututau has played in four games, and there are other true and second-year freshmen making tangible contributions.

In spite of the youth, this defense has been dominant for long stretches of Pac-12 games, the second halves at USC and vs. Arizona State come to mind, but it has not been that for a full four quarters. Giving up 260 rushing yards to the Beavers, while quarterback Chance Nolan got some things done through the air in high-leverage spots during the second half, were glaring.

For the season, Utah is fourth in total defense in the Pac-12 (361.4 yards per game), eighth in scoring defense (25.4 points per game), and, brace yourselves, sixth in rushing defense at 147.1 yards per contest.

Not great, but also not dire, and part of the reason this is not dire is because the offense can score, and sometimes score a ton.

If Utah didn’t have a punt blocked and returned for a touchdown, 34 points might have been enough to get out of there with a win. Either way, averaging 31.9 points per game should be enough to win games, and it has been, even if your defense is not consistently up to par.

“Is our offense ready to win a game, 51-48?” Whittingham said. “We’re getting closer, but hopefully it doesn’t come to that. We’re certainly not where we need to be on defense right now.”

Utah is going to take some lumps, sure, but with UCLA in town Saturday night, and the opportunity to take full control of the Pac-12 South on the table, limiting at least some of those lumps would be preferable.

What’s on my mind, Utah or otherwise

• I think Cam Rising is the best quarterback in the Pac-12 right now. I said that on the radio without realizing he leads the conference in QBR at 81.1, but that only strengthens my case. Really, I said that based more on an eye test. Rising has been very good for the last month, very in control, very much looking more and more comfortable as this Utah team creeps forward. He is completing 61.1% of his passes, and has thrown for 1,139 yards, 11 touchdowns and two interceptions vs. Arizona State, neither of which was completely on him. Has he missed some throws? Yes, but his positives far outweigh the few negatives. Rising has been excellent, and Utah is in contention for the Pac-12 South title because of it.

• There has been an increasing number of basketball-related questions, and I’ll be honest, I don’t know what to tell you until this group debuts Thursday night against Division II Westminster for an exhibition at the Huntsman Center. I, too, have a great many questions, none of which have been answered by the short media-viewing periods once a week during practice. I reported on Saturday that the Utes won a closed-door scrimmage over Wyoming by 20. That’s a good start, because if Utah had lost that scrimmage, or even gotten drilled, I would have had more, albeit different questions going into Thursday.

• Utah retiring No. 22 was so obvious, such a no-brainer, but it was a matter of pulling everything together in a timely fashion. Saturday’s ceremony between the first and second quarters will take place in the middle of a high-profile, high-stakes, night kickoff against UCLA in what should be Rice-Eccles Stadium’s 68th straight sellout. I understand ESPN has bills to pay, but it would be cool, maybe even advisable, for it not to go to a commercial break after the first quarter and broadcast the proceedings. That would be the right thing to do.

• As Farmington star Collin Chandler readies to take his final official visit this weekend to Utah, here is something to chew on. According to the 247sports composite, Chandler, a four-star shooting guard, would be the program’s highest-rated recruit ever. Going through Utah’s basketball recruiting history on 247sports offers a reminder that Marshall Henderson once played here. I wish I were here for that.

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