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'You're going to take some lumps': Utes run defense in a rare spot under Whittingham

Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham encourages fans to make noise in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021. Utah won 35-21.

Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham encourages fans to make noise in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021. Utah won 35-21. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)



Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — Run defense and Utah football go hand in hand.

Few programs in the country have been more consistent than Utah in its ability to stop the run during Kyle Whittingham's tenure as head coach. It's why a majority of Utah's drafted players to the NFL over the years have been on the defensive side of the ball.

The defense is stout, physical and mostly immovable.

In the 10 years (11 seasons) of the Pac-12 era, Utah has led the conference in run defense in five seasons and nine seasons in the top three. If an opposing team wants to beat the Utes, it'll most likely have to get done through the air in a pass-heavy offensive scheme — over the years the pass defense has been the near antithesis to Utah's run defense.

But every once in a while, just like Saturday when Oregon State rushed for 260 yards en route to a 42-34 win over the Utes, the traditionally stout run defense of Utah breaks down. It's the third time this season an opponent has rushed for over 200 yards against the Utes, and all have been losses on the road.

The secret, it seems, is if a team can rush for over 200 yards against the Utes, there's a high likelihood they'll get a win. That magic number of 200 yards has been a telling indicator over the years.

In fact, in 11 seasons, Utah has allowed only 18 games where an opponent has rushed for over 200 yards against its defense out of a possible 129 games played since Utah joined the Pac-12. Of those 18 games, all but four have been losses for the Utes.

While not the only deciding factor in a win or loss for the Utes — they lose games many other ways, too, which have been documented over the years — it's a key indicator to how important the run defense has been for Utah's success.

Already this season, Utah has allowed 1,062 rushing yards and seven touchdowns for an average of 151.7 yards per game, or 4.1 yards per carry. If that numbers keeps up, Utah will be on pace to allow 1,972.2 rushing yards this season — the most of any season dating back to Whittingham's Mountain West Conference days.

It's not something Whittingham is used to seeing from his team, even if his player are younger and more inexperienced — like this season where the defense is made up of a majority of freshmen and sophomores.

"You never make excuses because if you're out there, you've got to perform," Whittingham said of his young defensive front. "But we're just not quite where we need to be up front yet. We've had flashes during the course of the year, but not quite enough consistency.

"We've got some young front guys that aren't quite yet as big and strong as they're going to be; they're going to be really good," he added. "We've got a lot of confidence in them going forward, but right now we don't have a 315-pound Leki Fotu and guys we've had in the middle there — they're 295, 290ish. But, again, they'll get bigger and better as time goes on."

Games where opponents rushed for more than 200 yards

2021 - Oregon State (L, 42-34): 260 yards

2021 - San Diego State (L, 33-31): 204 yards

2021 - BYU (L, 26-17): 231 yards

2019 - Texas (L, 38-10): 231 yards

2019 - Oregon (L, 37-15): 239 yards

2018 - Arizona State (L, 38-20): 251 yards

2017 - Oregon (L, 41-20): 347 yards

2017 - Arizona State (L, 30-10): 205 yards

2017 - Arizona (W, 30-24): 200 yards

2016 - Oregon (L, 30-28): 251 yards

2016 - USC (W, 31-27): 213 yards

2015 - Oregon (W, 62-20): 222 yards

2014 - Arizona (L, 42-10): 298 yards

2014 - Oregon (L, 51-27): 269 yards

2014 - Arizona State (L, 19-16): 239 yards

2013 - Arizona (L, 35-24): 300 yards

2012 - Arizona (L, 34-24): 320 yards

2011 - Georgia Tech (W, 30-27): 311 yards

And while there's no time to wait for the younger players to gain experience or get bigger suddenly to contend with teams that like to run — Utah's matchup against UCLA (8 p.m. MT, ESPN) this weekend will be another such example where the Bruins average 206.1 rushing yards per game — it's all about the long game for Whittingham.

As the top team in the South division, Utah will continue to contend for a division title in hopes of its third conference championships appearance in four seasons, but the 2021 season is far from where Utah expects to be. That inconsistency and "soft" defense may lead to losses down the road, but Whittingham believes it will pay dividends in the coming years.

"I think our defense is going to be fine in the long run — I'm talking about beyond this year. ... You're going to take some lumps — there's just no way around it," Whittingham said. "You can't not have that happen."

In the meantime, Utah may have to turn to its offense to get the job done — even if it means getting in a shootout with opposing teams. It's not something Whittingham's teams have been known for over the years in a defensive-minded program, but quarterback Cam Rising and the offense have done what's needed to at least keep the Utes in games.

"Is our offense ready to win a game 51-48? We're getting closer, but hopefully it doesn't come to that," he said. "But we're certainly not where we need to be on defense right now."

The offense, for its part, put up 455 total yards of offense and 34 points against the Beavers, and Rising is "playing really well," Whittingham said. So while the defense is a hit-or-miss experience this season, Utah's offense can be the one to carry the load moving forward — even if that hasn't been Utah's preferred strategy over the years.

The offense has some work to do to clean up its game, too, but it's more of a complete package going into games than a work-in-progress defense that Utah will continue to manage as the season progresses.

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