The Utah defense has come an awfully long way since five years ago when it ranked dead last in the nation in defense in total yards and gave up a whopping 43.7 points per game. In fact, it has come pretty far since last year when it ranked 95th out of 106 teams.
This year's Ute defense has been outstanding in three victories, so much so that it ranks in the top 10 in the nation in, count 'em, FOUR different categories.In the latest national statistics, the Utes are 3rd in rushing defense (45 ypg), 5th in total defense (202 ypg), 8th in passing efficiency defense and tied for 10th in scoring defense (11.0 ppg) .
Ute coach Ron McBride acknowledges, "Our defense has carried us" during three games when the offense and special teams have been inconsistent.
Of course, in two of those games the Utes were up against I-AA Idaho State and Utah State, which hasn't scared anyone with a rebuilt offense this year. But last week, the Ute defense held Oregon and its four-year starting quarterback in check in a big road victory.
Utah will get its toughest test of the young season Saturday night when Wyoming, the top-ranked offensive team in the offensive-minded WAC, comes to town (7 p.m. Rice Stadium). Not only are they No. 1 in the WAC in total offense and rushing offense, the Cowboys rank 11th and 12th in the nation in those categories.
"Wyoming will be our biggest test by far," says Ute defensive coordinator Fred Whittingham. "They are the most disciplined offense we've played."
The Utes are looking forward to the challenge. The Utes' preseason All-American defensive tackle Luther Elliss, remember him?, has almost been overshadowed by the big plays of his fellow defenders.
Cornerback Kareem Leary came up with two interceptions last week, including one for a touchdown. Safety Ernest Boyd has three interceptions on the season and cornerback Edwin Garrette had a key one against Utah State. Linebacker Marcus Woods came up with four tackles for losses against Idaho State. And middle linebacker Mark Rexford leads the team in tackles for the second straight year, even though he can't find as many people to tackle.
"This year I'm not making as many tackles, which is good," said Rexford. "The plays are already being taken care of. I'd rather be on a team where the whole group is making tackles."
Rexford says the Utes are playing better as a group because of the experience on the team this year and fellow senior Boyd agrees.
"It seems like we're playing more as a team," said Boyd. "We have more communication on defense this year."
McBride says there's no magic formula for Utah's improved defense since he took over the program in 1990. In the years previous to that, the Utes had gained a reputation for a marshmallow defense that couldn't make a tackle.
"When I came, we tried to get better players and develop an attitude," said McBride. "Fred Whittingham understands what it takes to win and he is consistent in his approach day to day."
Even though McBride seems pleased with the progress of the defense, he adds, "We haven't arrived by any means. We have an opportunity to build on what we're doing."
And Whittingham, the former BYU defensive coach, who spent much of the 1980s coaching defense for the Los Angeles Rams, is really hard to please.
"I wouldn't say we're solid yet," said Whittingham. "We're progressing and maturing, but we've got to get more consistent. We need to be mentally tough for four quarters."
When Whittingham came to Utah in 1991, he tried to install a "toughness" that had been missing during the Jim Fassel years.
"We've tried to get more physical and more disciplined," said Whittingham. "We had some good people when I came but we had to teach them you couldn't run around and play sandlot football.
"What we've tried to do the last two years is teach fundamentals," he added. "We're teaching them proper angles and the principles of zone coverage. It started to pay off last year, but injuries killed us."
That was a major reason for the Utes' drop to 95th in the nation in defense after climbing as high as 65th two years earlier. The defensive backfield was decimated with eight injuries, which forced them to use offensive players and unproven underclassmen.
But as a result of those injuries and some good recruiting, the Utes have more depth than ever this year and it's making a difference.
For instance on the defensive line, the Utes are extensively using four defensive ends, Bronzell Miller, Nate Kia, Louie DeCastro and Jeff Kaufusi. At defensive tackle Mike Wilson often fills in for Henry Kaufusi. "The key to the defensive line is to have fresh guys coming in and we have that this year," said Whittingham.
In the defensive backfield, the Utes have four experienced starters in Boyd, Leary, Garrette and Harold Lusk. Jeff Kirkman, a starter two years ago, plays a lot as a nickel back and reserve Cal Beck has already returned an interception for a touchdown.
Whittingham knows what it takes to win the WAC from his experience at BYU and now he's trying to apply it to the Cougars' chief rival.
"Looking back on those great teams we had at BYU, we used to win 55-28 during the season, but when we got to the last game for the championship, nobody would score any points and we'd win 13-3 or 9-6. That's the mark of a good defense. And that's the kind of defense we need.
"The WAC is so good offensively, you can't win with just offense. But if you put a good defense on the field, you'll win the WAC."