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Utah Utes Preview: Defense

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Will Coach Mazzone be able to exploit the match-up between UCLA's passing attack and Utah, the #99 team in the nation against the pass?

Will Utah's defense be celebrating this Saturday?
Will Utah's defense be celebrating this Saturday?
Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images

Welcome to Bruins Nation’s preview of the Utah Utes’ defensive. We previewed Utah’s offense yesterday.

We’ll take a look at Utah’s defensive statistics through ten games, and see how those stats match up to UCLA’s on paper. Then we will break down the defensive line, the linebackers, and the secondary, and analyze how the Bruins offense might matchup against the Utah defense in Salt Lake City on Saturday.

Statistics

Total Defense

Utes are ranked #51 in total defense, conceding an average of 375 yards per game (YPG). UCLA is #17 in the nation in total offense, rolling up an average of 497.9 YPG. The Bruins up-tempo offense should test the Utes, as long as Coach Mazzone competently makes appropriate play calls throughout the game.

Rushing Defense

Utah is pretty stout against the run, only allowing an average of 118.7 YPG, good for #17 in the nation. Although the Bruins are #34 in the nation in rushing offense, churning out 199.6 YPG, this could be a tough match-up for UCLA, even given Paul Perkins and a deep corps of back-ups in Nate Starks, Soso Jamabo, and Bolu Olorunfunmi. UCLA’s offensive line will need to have a much-improved game for UCLA to be able to pound the rock against Utah.

Passing Yards Allowed

This is where, on paper, UCLA has what appears to be a clear advantage. Utah is #99 in passing yards allowed, giving up 256.3 YPG through the air. The Bruins are #20 in the nation in passing yards, racking up 298.6 YPG with the passing attack. Although the numbers favor UCLA, they only do so by 40 plus yards and, given the poor play-calling in the red zone and/or UCLA’s reluctance to throw the ball into the end zone when outside of the red zone, this advantage on paper might not be so advantageous on the gridiron.

Thoughts on the Stats

Although the Bruins appear to have an edge when they throw the ball, that edge might be tempered by UCLA’s play calling. UCLA’s front five to have a good game UCLA to be able to run the football against Utah’s run defense (see below). Also, Utah is one of the top teams in the nation in turnover margin (#12), with 25 takeaways against only 16 turnovers. UCLA will need to take care of the ball against the Utes.

Defensive Line

Starting at left defensive end is a name with which all UCLA fans should be familiar: Kylie Fitts. Fitts committed to the UCLA Bruins and saw some playing time in his freshman season in 2013. He then decided to transfer to Utah, and sat out all of 2014. The Bruins could sure use him now. This season, he has started in eight games, recorded 29 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss (TFLs), and 4.5 sacks.

The right defensive end is Jason Fanaika. Fanaika is a redshirt senior who has started 15 games over the last two seasons. This year, he has 39 tackles, 7.5 TFLs, and 2.5 sacks.

Utah’s starting defensive tackles should be Lowell Luotulelei, a true sophomore, and Filipo Mokofisi, a redshirt sophomore. Luotulelei’s brother, Star, was an absolute stud for Utah a few years ago, an NFL first round pick, and now starts for the Carolina Panthers. It seems like Lovell was also gifted with his brother’s talents, as the younger Luotulelei made several freshman All-American teams last season, in which he played extensively and started six games. This season, Luotulelei has 22 tackles, four TFLs, and one interception (INT).

Mokofisi has started six games this season, and played in all 13 games last season, starting two. He has 17 tackles, 1.5 TFLs, and 1.5 sacks on the year.

This is a very talented group, and might be Utah’s best overall unit on their football team.

Linebacker

The best player on defense for the Utes, however, might be Gionni Paul. Paul, a transfer from the University of Miami, played and lettered in his freshman and sophomore seasons in Coral Gables. After sitting out the 2013 season, Paul was the regular starter at "rover" linebacker 2014. Paul was tied for third in the PAC 12 in both tackles and tackles for loss last season and has been named National Defensive Player of the Week two times in his collegiate career. This season, Paul has started every game, and leads the Utes with 86 tackles, 12 TFLs, three sacks, and three INTs. Those are incredible numbers.

Jared Norris, a redshirt senior, will start at the middle linebacker position for Utah. Norris has tons of experience, having played extensively in each of his four years at Utah, and starting a combined 20 games in 2013 and 2014. This season, Norris has 73 tackles, 3.5 TFLs, and one sack.

Redshirt senior, Jason Whittingham, Head Coach Kyle Whittingham’s nephew, has started four games this season and should get the nod at "stud" linebacker. Whittingham has played a lot over his career when he has not been injured. Whittingham missed a combined 12 games in the 2012, 2013, and 2014 seasons. He also started 20 times during those years. This season, Whittingham has 22 tackles, six TFLs, and 1.5 sacks.

This group is also very solid. Paul is a star. The Utah front seven show why the Utes are ranked #17 in rushing defense.

Secondary

The likely starters at cornerback for Utah are Reginald Porter and Dominique Hatfield. Neither has a ton of experience, which might help explain why Utah is ranked #99 in passing yards allowed.

Hatfield, a true junior, was moved to cornerback from wide receiver after the first game of the 2014 season. He had 39 tackles, an interception, and nine pass breakups in 2014. This season, Hatfield has 25 tackles, three interceptions, and has defended four passes. Porter, a redshirt junior, missed last season with an injury, and played mostly on special teams in 2013. His starting experience at cornerback is limited to this season, in which he has started eight games. Porter has 29 tackles and has defended seven passes this year.

The safeties do not have a ton of experience either. Redshirt senior, Tevin Carter, will start at strong safety. A JUCO transfer, Carter started four games last year before he was lost to a season ending injury. This season, Carter has started nine games, recorded 50 tackles, and 4.5 TFLs.

True sophomore, Marcus Williams, will start at free safety. Williams has started every game for Utah this year, and started the final six games of his true freshman season last year. Williams has 52 tackles, two TFLs, and four INTs.

In nickel situations, which will be frequent considering UCLA’s offensive philosophy, expect to see Justin Thomas as the fifth defensive back. Thomas, a redshirt Junior, has 19 starts over three years with the Utes. On the season, Thomas has 36 tackles one TFL, three INTs

It is interesting to me that Utah’s most experienced defensive back (Thomas) is only used in nickel situations. Of course, in the PAC 12, nickel situations are the norm. I wonder, however, why Thomas isn’t one of the two starting cornerbacks in the base defense. Is it because, despite his experience, he is simply not as talented as Porter and Hatfield, who not have much experience at all? It will be interesting to see how Utah’s secondary defends against UCLA’s passing attack.

Strategy and Analysis

Although UCLA needs to run the ball, I think the Bruins should attempt to exploit better match-ups in the passing game. The Bruins can score points on Utah if Noel Mazzone calls a good game. Otherwise, the Bruins are going to have another four Ka’imi Fairbairn field goals when they should be getting touchdowns. I really think Coach Mazzone’s play calling is going to be the difference in this game. Given his history at UCLA, how do you think he’ll fare?

Thanks for reading Bruins Nation preview of the Utah Utes’ defense. If you have any more input or thoughts (Ravenous Ute, anything to add?), please add them in the comment section below.

Go Bruins!!!