No. 12 Utah’s defense standing apart with elite play
Utah has allowed just 10 points through its last 10 quarters of football and has outscored opponents 111-23 during the team’s current three-game winning streak.
It has allowed the Utes to stake a claim as one of the nation’s best all-around defenses. Utah currently leads the Pac-12, and ranks in the Top 10 among FBS teams, in rushing defense (61.1 yards per game), total defense (252.1 yards), and scoring defense (11.7 points per game).
Utah (6-1, 3-1, Pac-12) allowed only 136 total yards in a 21-3 victory over Arizona State last week.
“The numbers were as good as I can ever remember just from a statistical standpoint,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “I thought the plan was very good going in, but again the plan is only as good as the players that are executing it and the players did an outstanding job.”
One common thread in Utah’s defensive success is third-down conversion percentage. Over the last three games, the Utes have allowed opponents to convert less than 20% (7-of-38) of their third-down opportunities.
Utah’s success in stopping the run on first and second down has made it easier to shut down opponents on third down and force three-and-outs on numerous drives.
“If you keep them to minimal yards on first and second down, it causes them to do third and long,” cornerback Jaylon Johnson said. “It’s kind of predictable after that because they got to get to the sticks at least, so it narrows down the play selection and play calling and makes it easier for us.”
Seeing this level of defensive efficiency isn’t encouraging for a struggling California offense. The Bears rank last in the Pac-12 in both scoring offense (20.0 points per game) and total offense (324.0 yards).
California (4-3, 1-3) is mired in a three-game losing streak because it can’t sustain drives. The Bears have scored 13.7 points per game over that three-game stretch and failed to reach 300 total yards on offense in each game.
“Everybody is frustrated with losing, but we have to perform better,” California coach Justin Wilcox said. “Our margin is very thin and we got to perform at a higher level in every phase of the game to win.”
The Bears’ defense has stayed strong under the strain of all those extra snaps. California has held 14 straight opponents under 25 points, the longest active streak in the FBS.
QB QUESTION MARKS
Both teams could have a different starting quarterback Saturday.
Cal QB Devon Modster is week-to-week after exiting with an injury in the fourth quarter against Oregon State. Freshman Spencer Brasch led California’s final two drives and will make his first career start against Utah if Modster can’t go.
Tyler Huntley is also questionable for Utah after missing the fourth quarter against Arizona State with a leg injury. If Huntley can’t go, either Jason Shelley or Drew Lisk could start. Both quarterbacks played against the Sun Devils, but Whittingham did not specify which one could get the nod Saturday.
Zack Moss claimed the Utah career rushing record in the win over Arizona State. He is just getting started rewriting the record books.
The senior, who now has 613 yards on 93 carries this season, needs one rushing touchdown and one more 100-yard game to become the school’s all-time leader in both categories. Moss leads the Pac-12 with 102.2 rushing yards per game.
California isn’t backing down from the challenge of trying to stop him.
“The front seven love going up against a running team, so we can hopefully impose our dominance on them and stop the run game,” linebacker Cam Goode said.
Evan Weaver has keyed California’s stingy defense with his disruptive play. The linebacker leads the Pac-12 with 105 tackles, which include 7.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. He is coming off a 21-tackle performance against Oregon State.
Weaver is the only FBS player to finish with at least 18 tackles in three games this season. He is also the only FBS player to have two games with at least 20 tackles in the same season in the past five years and the only Pac-12 player to do it in the past 20 years.