How Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham wants to clean up ‘sloppy’ play at Florida

Utes gave up 283 rushing yards, including 106 and three touchdown runs to Gators QB Anthony Richardson,

(Phelan M. Ebenhack | AP) Utah players run onto the field before an NCAA college football game against Florida, Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022, in Gainesville, Fla.

The University of Utah’s defensive front seven has traditionally been a strength of Kyle Whittingham’s teams.

In last week’s 29-26 loss at the University of Florida, the Utes’ four defensive linemen and three linebackers were ... something else.

“It was sloppy, is the word I keep going back to, because that’s what it was,” Whittingham said this week. “Sloppy technique-wise, sloppy fundamentally, sloppy tackling, sloppy fits.

As the 13th-ranked Utes prepare to face Southern Utah at Rice-Eccles Stadium (11:30 a.m., Pac-12 Networks), that front seven has been front of mind for Whittingham.

“We just have to get better across the board in the front seven, the front seven was just not what we’re used to,” he said. “... We just weren’t in the right places at the right time, and when we were there, we missed 27 tackles. That was the count, which is way high for us. It’s usually single digits, 10 or less, nine or less.”

Sharrieff Shah doesn’t coach the linebackers or the defensive line, but Utah’s cornerbacks coach watched the same film as Whittingham, so he wasn’t in any position to disagree on the head coach’s assessment.

“Exactly what Coach Whitt said, that we didn’t make plays that we should have,” Shah said. “That we were unreasonably soft, should have played tougher, should have made more tackles, and the plays were there to be made and we didn’t make them. I agree with exactly what Coach Whitt said.”

Florida, which went from unranked to No. 12 in the latest AP Top 25 following the win, rushed for 283 yards and 39 attempts, but not all of that was on designed runs. Gators redshirt sophomore star quarterback Anthony Richardson rushed for 106 and three touchdowns on 11 attempts, with at least half of those 11 attempts coming on broken plays, not to mention defensive breakdowns.

For example, on second-and-5 from the Utah 45-yard line late in the second half, Richardson got good protection, stepped up in the pocket, and before the pressure really got to him, took off wide open down the left sideline for a touchdown. The only challenge Richardson saw from a Utah defender on the play was when he had to take on a charging Clark Phillips III at around the 6.

Phillips III was the closest defender to Richardson, but only after sprinting from the right hash all the way to the left sideline, which says something about how bad the defense was on that play.

“We’ve got to do a much better job staying in our gaps,” Utes linebacker Karene Reid said. “Florida’s a great team, so they made us pay, but if we played an average team, we still would have given up a lot of yards the way we played. We shot ourselves in the foot by being misaligned and not knowing our assignment.”

Added Whittingham: “If you watch the tape, our run defense was just abysmal. We gave up almost 300 yards rushing, didn’t gap control well, didn’t take on blocks well, didn’t do anything. Didn’t tackle well. There’s nothing of any redeeming value we did in the run defense.”

Florida’s game-winning drive was a microcosm of Utah’s defensive struggles.

The Gators went 14 plays, 75 yards across 4:57, capped by Richardson’s 2-yard touchdown run to put Florida up, 29-26, after the extra point with 1:25 to play. Utah’s defense was on the doorstep of bailing itself out on multiple occasions during that drive.

Third-and-4 at the Florida 31: Richardson takes a shotgun snap, hits wide receiver Xzavier Henderson for a 5-yard gain.

Third-and-1 at the Florida 45: Trevor Etienne rushes up the middle for 21 yards, fumbles the ball ahead six yards, then recovers it to set the Gators up at the Utah 34.

Fourth-and-2 at the Utah 26 with 1:53 left: Out of the shotgun again, Richardson scrambles for nine yards.

Florida kept it on the ground from there, eating up the final 17 yards on four plays.

“We made a lot of fundamental mistakes,” third-year sophomore defensive end Van Fillinger said. “We weren’t making those mistakes going against the scout team, going against the first-team offense. You go against some good guys, though, you see some things you’re not used to seeing. Maybe we were caught off guard, but it wasn’t anything we weren’t prepared for. We’re just trying to patch up where our weaknesses were and we’re trying to get better.”

Added Whittingham: “The entire front seven, as I mentioned, was, if you look at the entire game, offense, defense, and special teams, our biggest deficiencies were in the front seven on defense, That includes the front guys, and the backers.”