In the least surprising news out of a cold, cruel Saturday night in November, maybe out of the entire year, Stanford struggled to move and score the ball against Utah’s defense in their game at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Because it’s written in the stars.
Utah football has established itself not just this season, but over the past number of years, as the Pac-12′s version of the Maginot Line. The only difference with the Utes is that there’s no skirting off over other borders on attack, no getting around them, at least not on most occasions.
Not on this particular night.
“Our defense played outstanding,” Kyle Whittingham said afterward. “A lot of really good play. … When you look at our body of work, as a whole, it’s very good.”
Said defensive end Jonah Elliss: “It’s us just doing our job.”
That defense hasn’t been without flaws in 2022, but Morgan Scalley’s resistance is where it typically is at this juncture — atop the Pac-12′s defensive standings.
The Utes rank No. 1 in overall defense. They were ranked No. 1 last season. They were second the year before. They were first the previous year. They were second the year before that.
No big surprise. Everyone’s seen it as it’s happened.
Everyone saw it again against the Cardinal.
Heading into Saturday night’s game, the Utes had yielded 344.7 yards a game, 212.2 yards through the air, 132.4 on the ground.
They allowed 177 yards to Stanford, 155 via the pass, 22 via the rush. First downs — a total of nine of them — were little more than vapor for the visitors here.
That Utah defense messed up on exactly one play in the first half, a 50-plus-yard pass that set up a Cardinal touchdown in the initial quarter. Other than that … nothing, nada, nichts. It was as though that defense needed a few minutes to wake up and once it did, the beast stirred, smashed and stomped, leading Utah to a 42-7 victory.
Pity the erudite dudes from Leland Stanford Junior University. They had no chance.
In the first half, those dudes gained all of two first downs and got just 91 yards against 239 for the Utes. Utah ended up with 514 total yards of its own.
If you had to figure and assign a single designation for which any Pac-12 team is best known, whatever it might be, defense at Utah is near or at the top. The association is unavoidable, undeniable.
It’s like Hollywood tied to show business. Vegas tied to gambling. Pittsburgh tied to steel. San Jose tied to silicon. Philly tied to cheese steaks. Washington, D.C., tied to lies and corruption.
Utah is tied to defense.
It is because … yeah, it just is.
We can be a bit more specific than that. It is because Whittingham has made it that way.
Ask around the Pac-12 — around the country, really — about Ute football and the first conjured image is big, tough, physical stonewalling up front, and speed in the back. Large masses of humanity to stop the run, cruel shoes in the secondary to interrupt the pass. NFL-caliber talent all around.
That’s the rep, but it’s also the reality.
Man, doesn’t Stanford know it.
Again and again, the Cardinal offense tried to plow ground through Utah territory, from time to time attempting to throw over it, and when it couldn’t do either, not with any consistency, it couldn’t come up with any other ideas about how to move the ball — except to punt it.
In modern college football, the combo-pack of explosive offense and huge scoring is all the rage, and everybody gets that. It’s effective. It’s entertaining. It’s fun. It’s difficult to contain. And it is in most cases necessary.
Whittingham, though, has never completely turned his back on the now-diminished notion that defense wins championships. That claim has always been a half-truth. You have to score points — no duh — to win. But when you have playmakers on the defensive side — a rude, rowdy, randy and smart bunch — you don’t have to score quite so many.
Nice to know.
Last season, when the Utes won the league title and went to the Rose Bowl, they, indeed, had the league’s best defense and the league’s third most proficient offense. It was enough.
Utah is hoping the same will hold true this time around, as it fights for another title, battling for position as it is with Oregon, which lost to Washington on Saturday, USC, which won on Friday night, and UCLA, which lost on Saturday night. Prior to beating Stanford, the Utes ranked as the league’s sixth-best offense, statistically at least, in 2022, trailing their three top opponents, and two others, in that regard.
But on defense, the Bruins were fifth, the Ducks sixth, the Trojans seventh, all a few lengths behind You-Know-Who.
As mentioned, Utah’s D hasn’t been perfect this season. It gave up 42 points in a home win over USC and 42 in a road loss to UCLA. The Utes surrendered 502 yards to the Bruins and 556 to the Trojans. Their opponent next week, Oregon, sports the Pac-12′s top-ranked offense, averaging better than 520 yards per game. Something will have to be done about that if the Utes’ optimistic plans are to be fulfilled as wished.
Their foe on Saturday night came in averaging a mere 376 yards, third worst in the conference. And while limiting the Cardinal was important, gearing up for the Ducks is what matters most now. If the Huskies can beat Oregon on its home field, perhaps the Utes can, too.
Could Utah do to Oregon what Georgia did to the Ducks in the season’s opening week, holding them to 313 yards and just three points?
No. Not just no, but hell no.
Even in defeat, Oregon put 592 yards on Washington.
At Autzen, the Ducks typically play more like pterodactyls.
But just like the Huskies, the Utes have proved they can win there. They’ve done it before, done it big.
They can’t do it without a strong showing from their defense, their calling card, their identity, their better half, what they’re known for and tied to.
Which is to say, the Utes’ game will have to live up to their name, their present to their past, their reality to their rep. A little offense en route — just like on Saturday night — would hurt them not one iota, either.