Utah football’s defense has not been good lately, but reason for optimism after USC win

Utes gave up 556 yards to USC and quarterback Caleb Williams, but only 192 after halftime

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes safety Sione Vaki (28) celebrates a stop on a kick return as the University of Utah hosts USC, NCAA football in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022.

The University of Utah defense is not in a good place at the moment.

Always a strength of Kyle Whittingham-coached teams, the Utes defense yielded 511 total yards at UCLA in a loss on Oct. 8, followed by giving up 556 on Saturday night in a 43-42 come-from-behind win over USC at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Those numbers, the amount of chunk plays Utah is giving up lately, the way opposing quarterbacks have mostly had their way in recent weeks. All of it needs to get cleaned up as the home stretch looms for a Utes team still right in the mix to advance back to the Pac-12 championship game on Dec. 2.

“Figuring out why we’re deficient on defense and simplifying things, getting our players in the right frame of mind,” Whittingham said when asked what needs to be fixed during the bye week. “As coaches, that’s our job. If we’re not playing well, that’s on us. We’re getting great effort from our defenders, but we have to put them in better position to succeed, and that is job No. 1.”

Coming out of the USC game, one could argue there should be optimism on that side of the ball, because for as bad as the defense was in the first half vs. USC, including giving up six plays of at least 17 yards in the first quarter alone, it was equally as good in the second half in helping erase two different 14-point deficits.

After halftime, USC tallied just 192 total yards. Trojans sophomore star quarterback Caleb Williams was just 9-for-15 passing for 112 yards in the second half after throwing for 229 yards and three touchdowns in the first half.

At least some of that credit should go to defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley, who Whittingham said “changed up the calls a little bit and simplified things a little,” while also calling some timely blitzes.

“There were just things we were seeing out on the field that might have been complicated to figure out in between plays,” senior safety R.J. Hubert said. “As we sat down (at halftime) he just said, ‘Look, this is all they’re throwing at us, and it’s something we’ve seen before.’ We adjusted and it was taken care of.”

Added third-year sophomore cornerback Clark Phillips III: “He definitely made some adjustments in that aspect, continuing to put us in good positions. I can’t say he didn’t put us in good positions in the first half, we just didn’t make the plays. I feel like in the second half, we did more in terms of trusting the system and we ended up making some plays.”

One of the aforementioned timely blitzes that Scalley called, or in one particular case involving Phillips, didn’t call, made for a lighthearted moment on Monday afternoon.

On a first-and-10 play with USC nearing midfield late in the third quarter, Phillips blitzed off the edge, got to Williams and dropped him for the first sack of his career.

It turns out, Phillips was not supposed to be blitzing, which he could laugh about Monday, but not so much on Saturday.

“I was at nickel, and that was a call, I wasn’t supposed to be blitzing, but I didn’t know that,” Phillips said with a smile. “I thought I was supposed to be blitzing. I was supposed to be in man coverage. Luckily, R.J. Hubert had my back, I ended up blitzing, I ended up getting to the quarterback, just so happened to be a sack.

“I went to the sideline, took some congratulations and a little bit of butt-ripping as well. It was some of both, but sometimes that happens.”

Hubert later explained the play was supposed to be a six-man pressure, which is man coverage as Phillips said. All of the USC receivers were supposed to be covered, with Hubert acting as the one safety over the top of the coverage. Pre-snap, everyone that was supposed to be covered was covered, except for Phillips’ man as he began sneaking down towards the box.

Hubert essentially abandoned what he was supposed to be doing in an effort to cover Phillips’ man, giving Utah its six-man pressure, but with no safety help over the top.

It all worked out as Phillips got to Williams for the sack, but it does speak to the overarching point, that a plethora of defense-related things still need to be worked out before Utah comes back to play at Washington State on Oct. 27 in Pullman (8 p.m., Fox Sports 1).

“I think just doing our assignment,” Hubert said in regard to what needs to be worked on this week. “It seems like the plays we’re giving up, it’s just one person. One place we’re not doing our assignment as well as we’d want to, so it’s hurting us a little bit when not all 11 people are doing their job. I would say that more than anything, but then also tackling and limiting damage when we can.”