Utah’s epic defense is keeping the team in contention amid injuries, punchless offense

The Utes are among the nation’s elite in third-down defense, sacks, rushing yards allowed, total yards allowed, and points allowed, which has helped the team to a 4-0 start and a No. 10 ranking despite myriad injuries and a punchless offense.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes defensive end Jonah Elliss (83)celebrates after sacking UCLA Bruins quarterback Dante Moore (3), in the final Bruin drive in the 4th quarter, in PAC-12 football action between the Utah Utes and theUCLA Bruins, at Rice-Eccles Stadium, on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023.

Much has been made of what the Utah football team might be capable of should it ever approach anything near total health this season.

After all, with so many contributors sidelined for every game thus far (including the starting quarterback, star tight end, top defensive end, and starting center), to say nothing of myriad more players missing one or more contests along the way, the Utes nevertheless find themselves 4-0 and ranked No. 10 in the latest Associated Press poll.

Clearly, it’s not because the team has been burying opponents under an avalanche of points, or dicing them up with an onslaught of yardage.

Whatever issues the team’s offense is having in those areas, it’s even worse for the Utes’ opponents thus far.

Utah’s defense mostly has been transcendent.

Head coach Kyle Whittingham was asked about the unit’s latest standout performance following Saturday’s 14-7 victory over then-No. 22-ranked UCLA, and struggled to invoke sufficient superlatives.

“A great — great’s probably not the right adjective — an even whatever is better than great defensive effort by our guys,” Whittingham said. “Absolutely suffocating defense.”

Suffocating works.

After all, the Bruins managed only nine rushing yards on 32 carries, and just 243 yards total. The Utes sacked heralded quarterback Dante Moore seven times, and kept UCLA off the scoreboard until only 3:39 remained in the game.

It wasn’t just the UCLA game, though.

Through the Utes’ four matchups thus far:

• Opponents have converted just 10 of 51 third-down plays against them — a 19.6% rate that leads the Football Bowl Subdivision.

• They’ve allowed only 204 rushing yards in four games, and that 51.0 average per game ranks third in the nation behind only Nebraska and Miami (Fla.). Their 2.02 yards allowed per rush also ranks third behind the same two teams.

• The 9.5 points per game they’re allowing is the sixth-best average in the nation, behind only Michigan, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Duke, and Penn State.

• Utah is yielding only 263.8 total yards per game, tied for the ninth-fewest.

• They’ve accrued 14 sacks, and their 3.5 per game average is tied for 11th-best. Jonah Elliss’ 5.5 total sacks lead the nation, and his 1.38 per game is second-best in the country.

“Man, I would say it’s the top defense I’ve been a part of, because of the depth,” said linebacker Karene Reid, who had a pick-six on the first play from scrimmage Saturday. “The talent’s always been here, but the depth has been crazy.”

To his point, star defensive end Connor O’Toole has yet to play this season, and fellow projected starter Van Fillinger has also been limited by injury and illness. While those two are both expected to practice this week, backups Elliss and Logan Fano were dominant against the Bruins. Meanwhile, defensive tackles Junior Tafuna and Simote Pepa have only played one game apiece. Reid missed almost two full games with a concussion. Starting cornerback JaTravis Broughton was out against Weber State.

And yet, the defense is the primary reason Utah is undefeated heading into this Friday’s matchup with Oregon State in Corvallis.

Which isn’t to say they’re without flaw.

Florida quarterback Graham Mertz racked up some passing yardage in the season opener. A mental mistake by cornerback Miles Battle was nearly disastrous against Baylor. And Moore missed several big plays early, but garnered a bit of momentum vs. the Utes as the fourth quarter progressed.

At least until they sacked him three times on what would be UCLA’s last-gasp drive, the culmination of an exceptional turnaround from last season’s meeting.

“Just go choke them out. You know, we had them on the ropes, so go knock them out. That was that was the message,” said Whittingham.

He praised the game plan of defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley, noting that there was an emphasis on shutting down the Bruins’ run game, which was accomplished via multiple fronts, some run blitzes, and “exceptional” gap control.

That set up the pass rush, which totaled seven sacks on the day.

“I think a big emphasis this week was working more fluidly as a defensive line,” said defensive tackle Keanu Tanuvasa, who had a sack and a forced fumble. “We recognize that our edge rushers are going to be able to get there, and [the goal] in the middle is to push the pocket so that we’re all collapsing it together. Just becoming a suffocating defense is really the goal.”

Whittingham heaped praise upon junior edge rusher Elliss, whose 3.5 sacks Saturday were almost as many as he accumulated in his first two seasons combined.

“He’s relentless. He’s got a great motor. Not the biggest guy — 6-2, 245 — but he just keeps coming at you. He’s got some really great pass rush moves, great spin move, and the speed rush is something that he excels in. He’s just been a tremendous player for us,” he said. “That was a projection; I think he was a running back in high school and a linebacker, and we took him — with the Elliss genetics, you see his dad [defensive tackles coach Luther Elliss], so we thought he was gonna get bigger, and he did. And he’s turned into a really good defensive end.”

The Utes have a lot of really good fill-in-the-blanks on defense right now.

And while the team’s ceiling may ultimately come down to overall health and the capacity of the offense to start generating more consistent threats, for now at least, the Utes can be competitive by continuing to be excellent on one side of the ball.

“Just really proud of our defense,” Whittingham said Saturday. “That won the game, and that’s the bottom line.”