Cougars to face impressive Utah defense
PULLMAN – Statistics can lie and often do.
But when it comes to the University of Utah’s football team, about the only statistic that rings untrue is its Pac-12 record.
The Utes are 3-4 in conference, not exactly what their fans expected in their first Pac-12 season. Most felt Utah (6-4 overall) would battle Arizona State for the South Division’s berth in the league’s first championship game.
After losing starting quarterback Jordan Wynn to a shoulder injury, the Utes began conference 0-4 and seemed lost. But a three-game winning streak has given them hope heading into the season’s final two weeks. Win out and they may still represent the South on Dec. 2.
The final stretch starts Saturday, when Utah visits Martin Stadium in Washington State’s final home game of the season. The Cougars will enter 4-6 overall, 2-5 in conference.
The Utes’ winning streak has been built on a revitalized running game and a defense that leads the Pac-12 in points allowed, yielding just 19.2 a game.
In this case, the statistics are true.
“This, in terms of raw talent, is the best defense we’ve seen, along with Cal,” said WSU coach Paul Wulff, whose team lost to Cal, 30-7.
That talent overflows up front, where Utes coach Kyle Whittingham believes he has NFL talent.
“I don’t want to name names, but four or five of (our) guys, when it’s all said and done – that’s counting the younger guys who are still developing – might have a shot,” he said.
Wulff isn’t aware of all of them, but he certainly impressed with Star Lotulelei, though he struggled to pronounce the 6-foot-3, 325-pound junior nose tackle’s last name (it’s lo-too-leh-lay).
“He’s the best defensive tackle we’ve seen,” Wulff said. “He’s a phenomenal football player. But they’ve got good players across the board.”
“Definitely the best all-around defensive line we’ve played,” agreed right guard B.J. Guerra, who will match up with Lotulelei much of the game. “Lotulelei’s big, strong and gets upfield. He’ll take advantage if you’re not in the right mindset every play.
“They are great run stoppers and in the pass-rush game, they far exceed anyone we’ve faced.”
The Utes yield just 100.8 yards a game (third in the conference) on the ground and 234.9 (fourth) through the air. They lead the Pac-12 in interceptions. And they have one of the conference’s best safeties in sophomore Brian Blechen, who didn’t start until the fifth game but is second on the Utes in tackles with 62 and has two each of interceptions and sacks.
“He stands out,” Wulff said.
So does one statistic. In the three-game winning streak, the Utes’ offense has not turned the ball over. It had 18 in the previous seven contest.
A big part of that is offensive coordinator Norm Chow has decided to give John White the ball.
The 5-8, 186-pound junior has carried it 95 times in the last three games (nearly twice as many times as Utah has passed), gaining 481 yards. He’s the Pac-12’s leading rusher not named LaMichael James.
“They have just committed to it,” Wulff said of the Utes newly dominate rushing attack. “They’re physical in their front, their fullbacks are really good and John White is a really good football player.”
And that’s no lie.