SALT LAKE CITY (AP) The fourth-ranked Utah Utes have leaned on their defense throughout the season and ridden its accomplishments to the top of the Pac-12. That’s traditionally a good formula for those with championship aspirations.
The Utes, additionally, have proven themselves particularly adept in the turnover department.
Utah (5-0, 2-0 Pac-12) is in a three-way tie for the national lead in turnover margin at plus-two per game. The Utes are plus-10 overall, rank No. 2 with 17 takeaways and No. 2 with 12 interceptions. They picked off California quarterback Jared Goff, a Heisman candidate and expected high first-round draft pick, five times Saturday.
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Turnover margin has always correlated to high levels of success.
Oregon advanced to the first College Football Playoff championship game last year with a nation-high plus-23 turnover margin and ranked No. 3 with 34 takeaways. National champion Ohio State had the second-most interceptions in the country.
Florida State set a school record with 26 interceptions and was No. 2 in the nation in turnover margin en route to winning the 2013 title.
”We have a defense that thinks we’re the best in the country at what we do,” linebacker Gionni Paul said. ”We heard about how good Cal was taking away the ball. We wanted to prove to them that we’re the dominant defense. We’re the best defense doing it. The whole week we emphasized taking the ball away and flying to the ball.”
The emphasis on takeaways has always been there, so it’s not a new development. It’s just paying off at an unexpected rate.
There’s a 4-and-1 goal at every practice of four turnovers and one returned for a score. Strip drills and interception drills are incorporated into every session. The Utes have had at least three turnovers in four of five games, including six against California, and average 3.4 turnovers per game. They’re on pace for 28 interceptions, which would match the school record set in 1947.
Utah was minus-9 in turnover margin just two seasons ago with three total interceptions. Paul said turnovers have been especially stressed ever since.
”We’ve got a policy, no balls on the ground,” Paul said. ”Those opportunities (may) only come once in a game, so make the most of it.”
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham and his defense made a statement with the way they toyed with Goff.
This was the player widely considered the top quarterback in college through the first stretch of the season and he had thrown a total of four interceptions before the trip to Salt Lake City. Whittingham said they had to confuse a quarterback of that caliber, and they were able to do so by disguising their coverages.
”Disguising is a big part of playing good defense and you’ve got to be able to do a good job of not giving the quarterback a pre-snap look where he knows what’s coming,” Whittingham said.
The defensive backfield is deep with Dominique Hatfield, Cory Butler-Byrd, Tevin Carter, Marcus Williams, Reginald Porter, Justin Thomas and Boobie Hobbs all making big plays this season. Williams’ four picks are two shy of the national high. The front-seven hasn’t put up the gaudy 55 sacks that led the nation in 2012, but they’re still affecting the quarterback.
”Our defensive line did a good job of keeping Jared Goff out of his rhythm,” Whittingham said. ”He was under duress on a lot of his throws. … We knocked some balls down, made him move around in the pocket and throw a lot sooner than he wanted at times. It works hand in hand. The pass rush helps out the pass coverage and the pass coverage helps out the pass rush.”
The turnovers snowballed on Cal and that’s exactly how the defense wants it. There’s a competition within the unit to make those plays.
The offense didn’t do as much with those turnovers as Utah would have liked, but quarterback Travis Wilson said those turnovers get the offense going, too.
”It’s huge for us,” Wilson said. ”It just gives us more excitement. We get hyped off it and it definitely brings a lot of juice to the entire team.”