Pass defense high priority for No. 18 Utah at Cal

BY foxsports • September 27, 2016

Utah's strength is usually its defense, but coach Kyle Whittingham is searching for better play on that side of the ball as the 18th-ranked Utes prepare to play at pass-happy Cal on Saturday.

Utah allowed 14 plays of at least 13 yards last week but still managed to move to 4-0 when it scored with 16 seconds left to pull out a 31-27 victory over USC in its Pac-12 opener. One of the Trojans' scores came on a kick return.

"We have to play better on defense," Whittingham said.

"We didn't play our usual defense, but in the end, 20 points allowed is pretty darn good. You give up 20 points most weeks, you're going to win and that's the bottom line. As far as rush and pass defense, it was not up to our usual standards."

It needs to be against Cal, which is second nationally in passing, averaging 459.3 yards per game. The Bears (2-2, 0-1) have scored at least 40 points in every game and have a 50-43 home victory against then-No. 11 Texas to their credit.

Cal's losses have come on the road to San Diego State and Arizona State, both undefeated.

Cal quarterback Davis Webb, a Texas Tech graduate transfer, has stepped in seamlessly for No. 1 NFL draft pick Jared Goff in coach Sonny Dykes' fast-paced "Bear Raid" offense. Webb leads the nation in completions (138), pass attempts (222), passing touchdowns (18) and passing yards (1,837). He has thrown five interceptions, including two in the fourth quarter of Saturday night's 51-41 loss at ASU.

"You can't throw two picks in the fourth quarter and expect to win," Webb said. "That is on me. If you turn the ball over, you are probably going to lose."

Cal also has the nation's leading pass-catcher in 6-foot-2 junior Chad Hansen, who has 50 catches for 656 yards and six touchdowns. That's already 31 more receptions than he had all of last season.

"He has tremendous body control and can go get the contested ball as well as anyone I've ever seen," Whittingham said. "He has some size to him and he's a competitive guy. He's a fierce competitor that can make catches, get his feet down when he needs to."

Utah did not allow a touchdown pass last week and has yielded only two all season. The Utes secondary kept USC in check by keeping everything in front of them. Cal won't mind that. Webb's quick release fits perfectly with Cal's volume of short passing.

That could also negate Utah's pass rush. The Utes recorded 10 sacks vs. San Jose State two weeks ago, although they had only one against USC. Defensive end Hunter Dimick leads Utah with four sacks.

As of early in the week, Utah was hopeful of having standout defensive tackle Lowell Lotulelei against Cal. He left last week's game with a shoulder injury. Utah lost defensive end Kylie Fitts after the second game due to a foot injury.

The game will certainly be a contrast in styles.

Utah will huddle and mostly will try to grind out offense on the ground, valuing physical play and time of possession.

The Utes have yet to feature a 100-yard back through the first four games. Running back Zack Moss, who led the Utes with 90 yards on 20 carries last week against USC, has a team-high 256 yards on 47 carries.

Quarterback Troy Williams has managed the Utes' offense efficiently in his first season as the starter. After throwing a combined four interceptions in games against BYU and San Jose State, he did not turn the ball over against USC. He threw two touchdown passes as part of his 270 yards, while completing 21 of 34 passes.

Wide receiver Tim Patrick continues to be the primary receiver, catching six passes for 100 yards against the Trojans.

Cal is giving up 491.8 yards per game and allowed 41 second-half points to ASU.

The Bears have turned the ball over seven times in their two losses, none in their wins over Hawaii and Texas.

"In the end that's what it comes down to," said Cal coach Sonny Dykes. "That's what we attribute our losses to."

While Cal is comfortable with shootouts, Utah is fine with low-scoring, tight games. The Utes are 8-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less, dating to the 2014 season. It helps that Utah still excels at punting, even after losing two-time All-American Tom Hackett. Mitch Wishnowsky leads the nation with an average of 52.1 yards.

Utah has won four of the last five meetings in the series.

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