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UCLA at Utah Defensive Preview: The Utes’ Defense Has Been Struggling

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Going into Friday night, the Utah defense is suffering from many if the same issues as the Bruins. Who will come out on top?

NCAA Football: Utah at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Friday night, we’re going to face a fellow conference team that is facing the same challenges we are: a sputtering offense, inability to stop the run, and an overall loss of confidence and swagger. How Friday night’s game plays out will likely have season-long effects on both the winner and the loser—the winner will be taking a big crucial step towards bowl eligibility, and the loser will probably continue a downward spiral that will probably continue until the end of the season. Defense will be key on Friday as both teams seem to struggle in the same areas. Utah runs a 4-3 defense, and you’ll see a familiar face lining up on the end.

Defensive Line

As I stated before, Utah seems unable to stop the run as of late, which may give our running backs the boost of confidence they so desperately need to move them in a positive direction. I’m done with trying to save Mora’s job; I care a lot more about the kids on the team that leave it all on the field week after week than a guy who can go make millions somewhere else (anywhere else!). Through five conference games, Utah has allowed 1,122 yards on the ground, an average of 224 yards per game. The Utes we’re blown out by Oregon last weekend 41-20, and gave up 347 yards that day, the most rushing yards allowed since joining the Pac-12. Something of note is that Oregon only threw for 69 yards. It was a slow, grinding loss on the ground, because the Ducks had absolutely no reason to air it out. UCLA has struggled in much teh same fashion. Last weekend, Washington only threw for 109 yards, which was a lot less than Jake Browning is capable of, however, Washington ran all over us for a total of 333 yards. So clearly, neither the Utes nor the Bruins have good defense up front. We can really exploit them here if Soso Jamabo and company can get it together Friday night. Utah plays four guys up front, and if you remember former Bruin Kylie Fitts, he’ll be there on the end. Alongside him will be seniors Lowell Lotulelei and Filipo Mokofisi and sophomore Bradlee Anae. In an article by The Salt Lake Tribune, Fitts addresses their struggles on defense: “We did it all last year; we did it the first four games, [so] there’s no reason why we can’t go back to that same defense. So we’re just going to go out ... and work on that.”

Linebackers

The Utah linebacking corps was touted as experienced and solid going into 2017, and this position was considered Utah’s deepest position. However, the last four games have said otherwise. The starters are all experienced, with seniors Sunia Tauteoli and David Luafatasaga, and redshirt junior Casey Hughes. Tauteoli and Luafatasaga are the duo leading this group, with Tauteoli being one of the oldest players in college football this year at the age of 26. He’s logged 47 tackled so far this year, and that was with missing one game against ASU, so clearly age doesn’t matter with this guy. Luafatasaga was once slated to attend Ole Miss, but ended up at Utah instead after he transferred from Arizona Western College. He had 52 total tackles in 2016, 12 of which came in Utah’s Foster Farms Bowl win over Indiana last December. That performance came right after a 10-tackle outing in a loss at Colorado that also featured two tackles for loss and a forced fumble. This unit will challenge the run on the outsides, and will likely have a bigger impact on the game than the front four.

Secondary

This unit is the youngest and most inexperienced on this side of the ball for the Utes, but they’ve also had a lot of success. Against Arizona (which was their last win over a month ago), this group forced five turnovers and scored a defensive touchdown. Safety Chase Hansen is the solo starter from last year, and he starts alongside sophomore Julian Blackmon and redshirt junior Casey Hughes. Head coach Kyle Whittingham has said that Blackmon is one of the “best tackling corners we’ve had here in awhile”, and that this entire unit is good at tackling one of the best secondaries they’ve had in years. I hear stuff like that and worry—Utah is going to be out for blood on Friday to stop their losing streak, and I don’t put it past our Bruins to fall apart on the road and get embarrassed on national television. Here is where good coaching would come in, but I digress.

Analysis

Will this be the week that Utah finally gets their mojo back? I’d rather it was next week when they play Washington State. I hate leaving readers hanging without a definitive analysis about what is going to play out Friday, but I honestly don’t know. My gut says we get the win—Josh Rosen gets it together, the line blocks just enough to let him throw, the running backs exploit Utah’s weaknesses on defense, and our defense does just enough to stop them. But we’re so inconsistent and unpredictable that it could just as easily turn into a dumpster fire and be Utah’s coming out party.

Go Bruins!