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Saturday Showdown: Previewing the Utah Defense

Pac-12 play continues as Kyle Whittingham’s defense strolls into memorial stadium this weekend.

NCAA Football: Southern California at Utah Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

If you look at last years Cal-Utah matchup in a vacuum, it is hard to not picture something quite similar happening again this year. Cal brings a high octane offense set to square off against Utah’s above average defense. Perhaps the teams each take after what their respective head coaches excel at, for Cal clearly offense and Utah the defense. Kyle Whittingham has consistently built a high performing defensive corps with sub-par talent. Look no further than their defensive performance over the last three seasons as evidence. In the span from 2014 through last week, Utah has been no worse than 31st in the country in points allowed per game. This is the hallmark consistency that Whittingham has built his foundation on at Utah, one that leaves him one victory away from his 100th victory in his career.

The Utes will have to rely on their offense to control time of possession in order to keep Davis Webb and the high flying Bears off the field. Utah has looked pedestrian at times in their secondary and will be up for a big task in attempting to contain one of the countries best wide receivers, Chad Hansen. Utah has also been hit with the injury bug early this year. Kylie Fitts, arguably their best defensive player on the roster, was lost for the season in the BYU game. Couple that with the recent injury to potential 2017 first round draft pick, Lowell Lotulelei, the Utes are thin on the defensive line.

There seems to be a common theme with each defensive opponent the Bears have faced so far this season. If Cal can establish a solid run game, the opponent ends up struggling to defend Davis Webb and the rest of the Cal offense (as we saw against Arizona State). However, if the Bears are forced to be one dimensional the entire offense can come to a screeching halt and Webb starts to force the ball into bad situations. The Bears offensive line once again appears to have the experience and depth advantage, yet it will be up to them to determine just how successful Cal can be against a tough defensive team. Let’s take a deeper look at Utah’s core defensive units below:

Defensive Line:

As previously mentioned, Utah is currently dealing with significant injuries to a couple of stalwarts on the defensive line. None particularly more important than the injury to Kylie Fitts who is now out all season. The Utah defensive line sets the tone for the linebackers and their secondary. The big boys upfront do an excellent job at keeping plays in front of them, plugging up holes and collapsing the pocket. One of the most eye popping statistics from last year is how many tackles their lineman had over the course of the season.

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It’s easy to see why Utah was one of the best teams at forcing opponents into passing situations when you take a look at their ability to stop ball carriers with their four man front. The only particular positive for Cal is that they have an advantage with the injuries Utah’s had to endure so far. If Lowell Lotulelei isn’t able to return for the game, the Bears have to exploit Utah’s lack of depth when running the football.

Linebackers:

In the past few weeks, the Bears have faced teams that depend on a lot of deception and blitzes from their linebackers to get pressure on the quarterback. In what should be a breath of fresh air for Cal, Utah doesn’t lean as much on blitzing to collapse the pocket. The Utes fall just under the national average when it comes to blitzes and their havoc rate is above average but not by the biggest of margins. Their linebacker core lost nearly all significant contributors, including two players that were in the running for Pac-12 defensive player of the year last season. All told, linebacker is definitely a position of weakness for the Utes.

The Bears however don’t attack linebackers nearly as much as power running teams do and Utah’s inexperience might be masked by their other two units ability to force Cal into obvious passing downs. The Bears will hope to put pressure on the linebackers in passing situations by relying on screen passes to help spring their shifty wide receivers downfield. This will force the inexperienced linebacker corps to take on a higher volume of tackles than their much more experienced defensive line. If they can get the secondary to bite down, similar to how Arizona State forced Cal’s secondary to do something similar last Saturday, the Bears can burn them deep over the top.

Secondary:

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Utah’s secondary last year was ridiculous, intercepting 22 balls over the season which is double that of their opponents. Five of which came against Cal and Jared Goff. All Pac-12 safety Marcus Williams returns to the Utes along with Dominque Hatfield who will probably be assigned to Chad Hansen duty for the evening.

While the secondary also dealt with significant turnover, the Utes had plenty of younger players see the field last season which eases the year over year transition. They also return both experienced corners from last season in the form of the aforementioned Hatfield and Reginald Porter. The unit is prone to forcing turnovers and if the first four weeks of the season have taught Cal fans anything, it’s that Davis Webb is more than willing to take a few risks when perhaps he best not to.

Final Take

This match-up is much harder to predict than any of the previous opponents Cal has faced. Utah’s defense is fairly consistent quarter over quarter and does a tremendous job rotating players in at each position to stay fresh. On the bright side for Cal, the Bears won’t face the same pressure to score every possession as the Cal defense stacks up favorably against an underwhelming Utah offense. If Cal can catch a few breaks and run the ball effectively, they might be able to once again upend a ranked opponent in Memorial. Khalfani Muhammed will be a deciding factor in Cal’s ability to keep the defense honest and Melquise Stovall will give the Bears a new element in the flat to move around Utah’s solid defensive front.