Utah's defense to face improved Iowa State attack
With Utah's offense dominating opponents, it's easy to overlook how well the Utes are playing on the other side of the ball.
No. 10 Utah (4-0, 2-0 Mountain West Conference) ranks seventh in the nation in total defense and in scoring defense, giving up only 12.8 points per game - just three touchdowns in four games. Only one opponent has cracked 100 yards on the ground.
Utah will be tested on Saturday night by an Iowa State offense that appears to have turned a corner.
The Cyclones, who stumbled to a 2-2 start behind a lackluster offense, scored a rather astonishing 52 points in a 14-point win over Texas Tech last week.
''I believe it could have been somewhat of a turning point for us with that victory Saturday night of further convincing ourselves that we are getting things,'' Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads said. ''I think it was evident as an offensive football team by the points we put up on the scoreboard.''
Indeed it was for the Cyclones, who gained 441 yards and got four touchdown passes from Austen Arnaud - twice as many as he'd thrown all year.
But Iowa State knows that points will be much tougher to come by against the Utes, who've allowed just 27 in their last three games.
Like most top defenses, Utah's prowess starts up front. The Utes rotate nearly a dozen players along their four-man line, led by end Christian Cox and tackle Dave Kruger, and seven different linemen have at least part of a sack so far.
Junior linebackers Chaz Walker and Matt Martinez combined for 28 tackles in a 38-10 win over UNLV on Sept. 11, and starting cornerbacks Brandon Burton and Lamar Chapman are two of the best in the Mountain West.
The Utes rank second in the league in both sacks and pass defense, which suggests that Arnaud will be in trouble if he tries to force things.
''They're playing the throw very well,'' Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said of his players. ''I'm very pleased with the progress the defense has made this year.''
About the only area the Utes can improve on is in forcing turnovers. They've forced just four all season, although freshman safety Brian Blechen's interception in overtime helped Utah survive its only close game so far, a 27-24 victory at home against Pittsburgh.
''If we're going to have a chance to be in the hunt for the Mountain West conference championship, that's going to have to change. We're going to have to start creating more takeaways,'' Whittingham said.
Utah will be the second elite defense that Iowa State has faced this season. The Cyclones also played No. 15 Iowa, which ranks second in the nation with just 10.2 points allowed per game.
Arnaud threw three interceptions in the 35-7 loss to the Hawkeyes and Iowa State's only score came late in the fourth quarter against Iowa's backups.
Iowa State appears to have come a long way since then - or at least it looked that way against Texas Tech. But while Utah can rack up the points like the Red Raiders, scoring 56 points apiece in routs of New Mexico and San Jose State, it can be just as dynamic on defense.
''They bring a lot of pressure on defense and we'll be ready for that,'' Arnaud said. ''Texas Tech brought a good amount of pressure, but not as much as Utah brings. We'll have to game plan for it. They kind of wreak havoc on that side of ball.''