The Utah Utes had just given up a touchdown on USC’s first drive of the game, a sequence of plays that took all of one minute, 44 seconds. It was defense so poor that coach Kyle Whittingham took it upon himself to send a message right then and there.
“Coach Whitt came over to the [defensive] line, particularly after that first drive against USC, and said, ‘Hey, we have to figure it out or it’s going to be a long night,’” senior defensive end Gabe Reid said Monday.
In the second half of that game, Utah’s defense delivered. It allowed just 14 points to the Trojans in a thrilling and ultimately important 43-42 win.
But it wasn’t just that half where Utah’s defense shined. Something changed after that, and the Utes have been stingy on that side of the field ever since.
“Since that point, we’ve been really stingy on defense,” Whittingham said.
Sophomore linebacker Karene Reid attributed the team’s improved defense to more togetherness.
“We’ve just come tighter as a defense,” Reid said. “We’ve watched more film, we’ve spent more time off the field together, and that’s shown up on the field.”
In the last five games, Utah hasn’t allowed opponents to score more than 21 points. Only of those efforts came in a loss — 20-17 to Oregon on Nov. 19.
As the Utes prepare for a rematch against USC in the Pac-12 Championship game Friday at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, it might be their defense that could be the difference. Utah leads the conference total defense, allowing just 317.5 yards per game, and defensive touchdowns with four. It’s also second in the conference in sacks and fumble recoveries.
Utah is also within the top 20 in the country in the aforementioned metrics.
USC, on the other hand, leads the Pac-12 in points per game (42.9) and total offense (513 yards per game). So the matchup looks to be a tactical tête-à-tête for all the glory.
Whittingham said that earlier in the season, the Utes defense lacked experience, wasn’t fundamentally sound or tackling well, and lacked technique. But that’s changed since those players have “grown up,” he said.
“Just the way our guys have grown up this year, great job by Coach Scalley and his staff to get them ready every week,” Whittingham said. “Great job by the players taking the preparation process dead serious and making sure we don’t have any wasted time on the field or in the meeting room.”
Reid said it was going to take every single person on the defense in order to beat the high-octane Trojans.
“I think it really needs to be a team effort, man,” Reid said. “We can’t have the Clark Phillips Show or the Cole Bishop Show. As much as I want to see them do well, everybody has to have a good game. That’s what it’s going to take.”
Tribune reporter Josh Newman contributed to this story.