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UCLA-Utah Preview: Looking at the Utes' Defensive Unit

With Saturday just around the corner, we wrap up our preview of this week's opposition, the Utah Utes, with a look at their defensive unit, the strength of their squad.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

While the Utah Utes have been less-than-stellar on the offensive side of the ball, their defensive prowess is the strength of the entire team and it will be the best defensive unit the UCLA Bruins have faced all season long.  On the season, these Utes rank a very respectable 30th in points per game (19.8) and 51st in yards per game (370).  By comparison our allegedly vaunted UCLA defense that features some elite talent in Eric Kendricks and Myles Jack comes in at 63rd for points per game (24.8) and 102nd in yards per game (451).  So, expect Brett Hundley and our UCLA offense under Noel Mazzone to have to work and earn their points and yards this upcoming Saturday (unless, of course, Ishmael Adams has some more special teams heroics in store for us).

Delving a bit deeper into Kyle Whittingham's defensive unit reveals a couple of interesting notes - while the Utes have been very stout against the run, coming in at 26th in the nation (107.5 yards per game), they've been decidedly mediocre against the air attack, finishing 96th in the nation against the pass (262.0 yards per game).  While that could be a product of the fact that they had big leads in their opening games (against Idaho State and Fresno State), forcing those teams to pass to try to keep up, it's more likely indicative of a very good front-seven that eliminates the run game - the Utes are led by junior LB Jared Norris from Centennial HS in Bakersfield (35 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 3.0 sacks).

As our friends at SBN sister site Block U pointed out last week, the Utes run a 4-3 defense designed to stop the run and force the ball into the hands of the QB.  The problem with that, of course, is our QB is a Heisman contender who brings first-round NFL Draft talent to the table - while UCLA forcing Mike Bercovici to beat the Bruins was a smart play, inviting Brett Hundley to do the same is a sure-fire recipe for a defensive disaster.  Of course, Utah will likely be running a variety of blitz packages to get at Hundley (utilizing their plan against mobile Michigan QB Devin Gardner), which hopefully means Mazzone will be preparing with quick hitting routes over the middle to guys like Duarte that were effective against the Sun Devils.

If Hundley has time, with the offense we run, he should be able to carve up a Utah secondary that has been inconsistent at best.  Lurking in that secondary for Hundley will be Utah's third-leading tackler, senior DB Eric Rowe.  For those who may not have noticed, Rowe was the DB that Hundley beat with a 64 yard TD throw in their last meeting at the Rose Bowl. For Rowe, he's seeking revenge, which might be tall order against an even more polished Hundley.

Rowe and his partners in the defensive secondary will need a lot of help from their front seven, which has been able to push around opposing OLs, picking up 4.5 sacks per game (good for 7th in the nation).  That doesn't bode well for an OL that, over the past few seasons, have been very suspect at protecting Brett Hundley.  If Brendel and his OL unit can cobble together enough time to slow Utah's pass rush, the Bruins could be off to a big day at home.

That's your defensive preview of this Saturday's opponent, the Utah Utes.  Fire away in the comment section with your additions, takes, and comments as our Bruins gear up for a big Pac-12 duel at the Rose Bowl this Saturday.