SALT LAKE CITY — It’s a tip of the hat from Washington head coach Chris Petersen when it comes to Utah football.
“Utah has really good personnel and they have a good system,” he said Monday during a championship-week press conference.
Something that jumps out to Petersen is Utah’s defense. The unit has stayed healthy this season and has played a key part in getting the team to Friday’s conference championship game.
“I think one reason they’re playing for this title is because you see all the same guys we saw early on,” Petersen said, referring to the Week 3 matchup when his team beat Utah, 21-7. “If they’re not, there are one or two different guys. I think they’ve played better — they’ve upgraded.”
Point blank, Petersen said Utah’s defense is a better defense than the Huskies saw the first time around.
In the conference opener, Utah held Washington to just 155 passing yards. The Huskies entered the game averaging 366.5 yards in the air, ranked second in the league and 11th in the nation.
Senior linebackers Cody Barton and Chase Hansen led the defense in the performance, both finishing the game with 11 tackles each. It was their second straight game in double-digits.
As of the end of the regular season, Hansen is one of the country’s best linebackers. He tops Utah’s charts with 101 tackles and is fourth in the nation and the Pac-12 leader in total tackles for loss with 22. The senior has had five double-figure tackle games this season and has led or tied for the team-high tackle in eight of Utah’s 12 games.
Barton is just as successful, though. He follows Hansen with the second-most tackles on the team with 96 and four double-digit tackle games this year.
“Those guys are good players,” Petersen said of the deadly duo.
It’s guys like Barton and Hansen that have helped Utah’s defense stay successful. The Washington coach has noticed it throughout the season, admitting that “you have to earn stuff on those guys.”
Petersen said Utah’s lack of errors is a sign of a well-coached, championship-type defense.
“That’s what I think is championship football. I always think it comes down to defense. Everybody likes to talk about offense, but I think really, really good football teams come down to big-time defense,” Petersen said. Washington and Utah enter the title game as the league’s top-two defenses.
But while things have stayed similar in some ways for Utah, some things have changed. The Huskies’ coach respects how Utah handled and played through the season despite facing adversity.
On Nov. 3, starting quarterback Tyler Huntley left Utah’s game against Arizona State after suffering a shoulder injury. Redshirt freshman Jason Shelley stepped in. Despite the Utes losing that game, Shelley led the team to finish the regular season schedule with three wins, featuring victories against Oregon, Colorado and BYU.
More waves came crashing down following Huntley's injury as star running back Zack Moss hurt his knee for yet another season-ending blow for Utah. It put Armand Shyne, who’s averaged 92 yards in three starts, in the spotlight as he replaced Moss.
“I think they’re good players,” Petersen said of Shelley and Shyne. “I think those guys bring a lot to their offense.”
The Huskies aren’t preparing differently for the Utes than they would have if both Huntley and Moss were healthy. Petersen said they’ve looked at how the Utes’ system has changed but noticed that there really isn’t much of a difference.
“They’re doing the same stuff that they did with the other two players in there,” Petersen said. “You know, those guys are good players. They’ve got some pretty good game experience by now. I think those guys have a lot of quality reps, a lot of good game reps, and they’re kind of seasoned guys now in our eyes.”
The Pac-12 Championship is Friday, Nov. 30 at 6 p.m. MT and will be televised on FOX.