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Utes finding success with dominant 2nd half defense, but why the wait?

Arizona State Sun Devils running back Rachaad White (3) is gang tackled by the Utah Utes defense in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021. Utah won 35-21.

Arizona State Sun Devils running back Rachaad White (3) is gang tackled by the Utah Utes defense in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021. Utah won 35-21. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)



Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — A football game is judged in its entirety.

There's peaks and valleys — like the true roller coaster ride it is played out in 60 minutes of actual game time — but the game is judged on the final result and how it all came together in the end.

Even Bob Ross and his "happy accidents" were judged by his final piece of art — always a masterpiece.

For Utah football's defense, there's been a noticeable difference between the first and second half of games — in particular in Utah's three-game winning streak in conference play.

In the last three games, the Utes have only allowed 23 total points in the second half of play, which averages out to just 7.7 points per game. That's down — or an improvement — from the average of 9.5 points allowed per game in the second half this season.

If teams want to score on the Utes, they have to do it in the first half, at least based on a six-game sample size of this season. In those six games, Utah has allowed 11.7 points per game in the first half, and 12.3 points allowed per game in the first half in Pac-12 play.

"I think we are playing good defense overall, just so happens to be that we're playing a little better in the second half than in the first right now, but we're not really concerned about that," Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said. "We're just concerned with the final product — the final result.

"Our guys do a really good job of hanging in there and overcoming adversity and handling adversity, and that's been the storyline this year."

On Saturday, Utah held Arizona State scoreless in the second half, which is the first time the Sun Devils have been held scoreless in the second half since Oct. 14, 2017 in a 13-7 win over Washington.

It's not a common occurrence to say the least.

Utah would like to have that second half defense show up in the first half, too, but so far it's getting the job done. And like Whittingham said, it's not a concern to the team — so long as the team keeps winning. And while Utah has found success in the second half, there's not one clear reason why there's been a difference.

Whittingham said he doesn't have one clear answer other than it's "been our M.O." this season.

Linebackers coach Colton Swan agreed with his head coach that there hasn't been just one reason for the difference, but he gave an educated guess: it's just taking the defense a little more time to adjust to what's being played out on the field.

"Nowadays, an offense is designed to trick you — to give you a bunch of camouflage things out there — and sometimes it takes you a second to get it figured out," Swan said.

The game has evolved from "smash mouth" football where a team sees how many yards they can get "in a cloud of dust," to one where it's designed to move "this guy up position and take advantage of this and get it done," Swan said. "So sometimes it takes a little bit longer to see things like that."

The first half is different than the second half, but it's working for the Utes.

Arizona State Sun Devils running back Rachaad White (3) is tackled by Utah Utes cornerback Faybian Marks (23) and Utah Utes linebacker Karene Reid (32) in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021. Utah won 35-21.
Arizona State Sun Devils running back Rachaad White (3) is tackled by Utah Utes cornerback Faybian Marks (23) and Utah Utes linebacker Karene Reid (32) in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021. Utah won 35-21. (Photo: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Adjustments throughout the game remain key, but there's also one aspect of the game the defense has no control over that's helping the defense succeed.

The offense, led by quarterback Cam Rising, is playing well and has outscored opponents 66-23 in the second half in Pac-12 play. The once downtrodden offense in out-of-conference play has transformed into one worthy of a defense that often leads the Pac-12.

"I know, offensively, after the BYU game, they started taking a lot more pride in practicing hard, and so I think that translates throughout the whole team," linebacker Devin Lloyd said. "And so, defensively, I think we've always done a pretty good job. I guess even more it just would be ramped up knowing that now they're juiced up."

A better offense leads to a better defense, and it all leads to more winning and fun as a team.

"It's always fun when you're winning, especially seeing our offense putting things together," defensive end Mika Tafua said on the ESPN 700 Utes Coaches Show. "I was telling Cam earlier: Usually, on defense, when we come off the field it's like, man, catch your breathe and whatever and be ready for when we're called back to be out on the field. But now when we come off to the sideline, honestly, I become a fan, I start watching our offense.

"It's good to see the O-line doing their thing, running backs, receivers, quarterback — Cam — finally coming through."

It's a team effort.

Utah maintains it wants to start faster on defense and not allow teams to get an early jump on them, but the game continues to be judged in its entirety.

"Throughout the year, I've really been pleased with how our defense has been playing," Lloyd said. "No game is perfect, but the thing that is the most important is guys going out playing with energy, playing with swag. And I feel like we've done a good job of that all year, and we're just going to continue to cut down the mistakes and continue to get better."

"I mean, yeah, you always want to start better, for sure," Swan said. "Sometimes you've got to take it the way it comes."

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