Sti­fling Utah run de­fense awaits UA

Yuma Sun - - SUNSPORTS -

SALT LAKE CITY — Dis­rupt­ing the run game has be­come Utah’s de­fen­sive trade­mark once again.

Af­ter lead­ing the Pac 12 in rush­ing de­fense in 2015 and 2016, the Utes slipped to third place a year ago. Only one league op­po­nent, Wash­ing­ton State, failed to gen­er­ate at least 100 yards on the ground against Utah.

It is a much dif­fer­ent story this time around as the Utes pre­pare to host Ari­zona on Fri­day. Utah has al­lowed 42 to­tal rush­ing yards in its last two games against Wash­ing­ton State and Stan­ford. The Utes are al­low­ing just 2.6 yards per carry in Pac12 play.

Utah (3-2, 1-2 Pac-12) leads the Pac-12 in six de­fen­sive cat­e­gories. The Utes also rank in the Top 10 na­tion­ally in three cat­e­gories: red zone de­fense (0.615 8-of-13), rush­ing de­fense (75.4 ypg), and to­tal de­fense (296.4 ypg).

“It’s the best de­fense in the league right now,” Ari­zona coach Kevin Sum­lin said. “They play well to­gether. They haven’t given up a bunch of big plays. They’ve re­ally lim­ited peo­ple in their run game.”

One ma­jor con­tribut­ing fac­tor to Utah’s suc­cess is an abil­ity to get third down stops. Op­po­nents are con­vert­ing just 31.1 per­cent of third downs into first downs against the Utes, the low­est rate among Pac-12 teams.

“Win­ning third downs is like a mini-turnover and gets the ball back to your of­fense,” Utah coach Kyle Whit­ting­ham said. “Third down is the money down. You play first and sec­ond downs to set up the third down and third down is what it is all about.”

Go­ing up against Utah’s de­fense will be a ma­jor con­cern for the Wild­cats. Ari­zona’s of­fense has leaned on the run­ning game to com­pen­sate for Khalil Tate’s strug­gles while ad­just­ing to a new sys­tem and deal­ing with nag­ging in­juries.

The Wild­cats (3-3, 2-1 Pac-12) rank third in the Pac-12 in rush­ing of­fense with 201.8 yards per game. In­di­vid­u­ally, J.J. Tay­lor is third in the league in rush­ing yardage with 600 to­tal yards through six games.

Tate, one of the team’s best run­ning threats a year ago, has 69 to­tal rush­ing yards in three Pac-12 games. It’s a stark turn from 2017 where he av­er­aged 201.2 rush­ing yards in his first six league games.

Sum­lin at­tributes lower num­bers, in part, to teams chang­ing how they de­fend the ju­nior quar­ter­back.

“As you start to de­velop some other things in the run­ning game and some other at­tacks, you’re see­ing some dif­fer­ent de­fenses now,” Sum­lin said. “He’s just got to take ad­van­tage of what he sees.”

Ari­zona will face a dilemma in fig­ur­ing out how to slow Utah’s run­ning at­tack.

Zack Moss turned in a sea­son-high 160 yards and two touch­downs on 20 car­ries in a 40-21 win over then No. 14 Stan­ford. Moss cur­rently ranks third in the Pac-12 in rush­ing yards per game (109.8) and has 549 to­tal yards through five games.

“We have a heck of a run­ning back in Zack Moss and we have to uti­lize him,” Whit­ting­ham said.

Other things to note ahead of Fri­day’s game be­tween Ari­zona and Utah:


Both Utah and Ari­zona picked up Pac-12 wins last week­end by get­ting op­po­nents to re­peat­edly cough up the ball. The Wild­cats forced four sec­ond-half turnovers in a 24-17 win over Cal­i­for­nia — turn­ing two into de­fen­sive touch­downs. The Utes also forced four turnovers against Stan­ford. Two take­aways were back-to­back red zone in­ter­cep­tions in the first half — in­clud­ing a 100-yard pick six by Jay­lon John­son.


Mov­ing Chase Hansen from safety to linebacker this sea­son has boosted Utah’s de­fense. Hansen ranks third na­tion­ally in tack­les-for-loss per game (2.0) and his team-high 10 tack­les-for-loss ranks sec­ond among Pac-12 play­ers. He has a team-high 43 tack­les and is sec­ond with 3.0 sacks.


Collin Schooler has emerged as one of the more dis­rup­tive de­fen­sive play­ers in the Pac-12 this sea­son. Schooler has ac­cu­mu­lated a Pac-12 best 11 1/2 tack­les-for-loss in six games. He has 25 TFL in 19 ca­reer games. The sopho­more leads Ari­zona with 66 to­tal tack­les through five games.


Af­ter a slow start, Matt Gay has re­claimed his dom­i­nant form from last sea­son. Gay has made six straight field goals for Utah, af­ter go­ing 4 of 4 against Stan­ford. The 2017 Lou Groza Award win­ner leads the Pac-12 in field goals (8) and field goals per game (1.60). He led the na­tion in those same cat­e­gories, along with field goal at­tempts and 50-plus-yard field goals, a year ago.


ARI­ZONA RUN­NING BACK J.J. Tay­lor (21) in the first half of a Sept. 29 game against South­ern Cal­i­for­nia in Tuc­son.

Ari­zona at Utah

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