The Utah Utes’ defense is one of the most formidable in the country, ranking #1 in the Pac-12 and #3 in the country in total defense. They completely shut out UC Berkeley in their last game, allowing the Bears to put up a meager 83 total yards, with only 23 of those coming on the ground. It’s easy to see why the Utah defense has been so successful just by looking at the roster—the Utes do not start a single freshman and have mostly upperclassmen across the board. The UCLA Bruins’ offense will face their toughest test of the season so far with a trip to the Pac-12 title game on the line.
The Utah defensive line is about as good as it gets when it comes to run defense. Ranked #1 in the country, the Utes have only allowed opponents to score three total rushing touchdowns for the entire season, the last of which was against Southern Cal on September 20. Utah only gives up an average of 56 yards per game on the ground, a statistic which is worrisome for a UCLA offense that relies on the talents of running back Joshua Kelley to put points on the board. Running Kelley up the middle shouldn’t even be in the playbook this weekend.
Up front, the Utes have a very experienced front line in senior tackles Leki Fotu and John Penisini, senior end Bradlee Anae and sophomore end Mika Tafua. Every lineman has logged at least one sack, with Anae racking up eight sacks for 53 lost yards and an additional nine tackles for a loss of 54 yards this season. On top of a top-notch run defense, this line can get to opposing quarterbacks and completely destroy the passing game as well. Quarterback protection is going to be key for UCLA to have success on Saturday.
It looked like replacing both Cody Barton and Chase Hansen after the conclusion of the 2018 season was going to be a tough task. In addition to losing Barton and Hansen, two of the most successful linebackers in the Pac-12 last year, according to The Salt Lake Tribune, two additional linebackers left the program to “pursue business interests”.
But it is clear that Utah has moved on and not looked back. Senior transfer Francis Bernard came to Utah from BYU and has had an amazing season starting all nine games. He is a two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week and is second on the team with 55 total tackles. Redshirt sophomore Devin Lloyd leads the team with 58 tackles and is ranked 12th in the Pac-12 with an average of 6.4 tackles per game. These two have three interceptions combined while Lloyd has also added three sacks to his stats.
When the Utes’ top shelf defensive line has help from these talented linebackers, you end up with the best defense in the country. Junior Trennan Carlson and sophomore Sione Lund will also be in the mix in this unit, but Bernard and Lloyd will shoulder a majority of the work.
The Utah secondary rounds out this defensive perfection on display with senior free safety Julian Blackmon being one of the more talked about players in this unit. He was MVP of the Heart of Dallas Bowl as a sophomore and is currently sitting in fourth for tackles with 37 total for the season. Additionally, Blackmon has three picks, four pass break-ups, and one forced fumble. He took one of those interceptions all the way back for a 39-yard touchdown. Senior strong safety Terrell Burgess is also putting up video game numbers, with 46 tackles, 4.5 for a loss, and four pass break-ups. Burgess actually split time between receiver and defensive back his freshman year, but moved full time to the safety position and has had great success ever since.
Junior Jaylon Johnson and senior Josh Nurse will split the corner duties, with Johnson logging a monster eight pass break ups so far this year and earning First-team All-Pac-12 cornerback honors. Nurse actually started with Utah as a walk on at the receiver position, but moved to safety then corner and finally earned a scholarship in 2017.
Junior nickelback Javelin Guidry rounds out this five-man secondary and he should be remembered as one of the fastest men in the Pac-12 after also competing as a member of the Ute track team. According to Deseret News, he won the 60 meters at the UW Invitational in January and advanced to the finals of the 60 meters at the USATF Indoor Championships in February and finished first among college athletes and sixth overall.
There isn’t a single weakness in this defense. This is going to be an extremely tough game, testing every facet of the UCLA offense. Both the run game and the passing game are going to have to be flawless but, if the improvement upswing continues, the Utes might just get more than they anticipate.