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'Circus defense' holds Y. when it counts

Utes develop scheme to exploit slow BYU linemen

Utah's Casey Evans, right, celebrates with Steve Tate (28) after ripping ball out of Cougar running back Fahu Tahi's hands for the game's only turnover Saturday.
Utah's Casey Evans, right, celebrates with Steve Tate (28) after ripping ball out of Cougar running back Fahu Tahi's hands for the game's only turnover Saturday.
Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News

PROVO — Utah called it "the circus defense" because, as safety Casey Evans said, "it was crazy." It could also be called "Steve Fifita and the little people." Basically, Utah put 10 of their fastest — and smallest — defenders spread on the field along with all-league lineman Fifita. The Utes had used the play at various times during the game — usually third and long — to give BYU a look they'd never seen this season.

"Their offensive linemen are big, real big, but they are kinda slow," said Evans. "So we tried to beat them with our speed."

With the Utes ahead by a touchdown on fourth-and-6 in overtime, BYU had one last chance. And Utah hit them with "the circus." Only this time, with another twist.

"Every time we'd been in it, we'd been blitzing them," said Fifita. "But on the very last play of the overtime, we dropped nine players and blitzed two on the end. (BYU QB John Beck) couldn't find anyone open and he had to throw it up for grabs."

When the ball hit the ground, in the north end zone of LaVell Edwards Stadium, it was game, set and match. Utah 41, BYU 34.

"We wanted a group of people they hadn't seen as far as personnel," said Ute coach Kyle Whittingham of his team's unusual new defensive scheme it used about a half-dozen times during the game. "It was basically made up of defensive backs with a few linebackers and Fifita. We had three or four things we could do out of that, and it was 100-percent (successful) with the exception of when we were offsides."

Whether playing a more traditional scheme or the gimmicky "circus," the Utes got the job done defensively in the first half. They held the high-scoring Cougars to just a field goal, as the Utes took a 24-3 lead into the locker room.

Perhaps the biggest play of the game came late in the first half when BYU running back Fahu Tahi rushed the ball for a 5-yard gain but while trying to get some extra yardage had the ball yanked out of his hands by Evans. He took off, picking up 31 yards on the fumble return to the BYU 7. It set up Utah's final score of the half.

"Casey just ripped the ball right away from him," said Whittingham. "We practice that. We practice stripping the football every week, and Casey just got a hold of it and took it away. That was a huge play."

But the BYU offense, which had averaged better than 50 points per game in their previous three, got rolling in the second half. The Cougars scored 21 points in the third quarter and 10 more in the fourth to tie the game and had all the momentum going their way when they got the ball back with 2:32 remaining in regulation and the score tied at 34.

But, for just the second time in the second half, the Ute defense held and forced a punt with 1:22 remaining.

"They came out strong in the second half," said Ute safety Eric Weddle. "We had a tough time. They were making plays all over the field. But at the end we knew it would be up to us as a defense if we were going to win this game and everyone stepped up and made the plays."

Utah scored a quick touchdown in the overtime period, but it wasn't over yet. The Ute defense still had to hold. The Utes held Curtis Brown to a yard on first down, forced Beck to scramble for just three yards on second down and then Beck threw an incomplete pass on third.

Then it was time for the Utes to pull out "the circus" one last time.

It worked just like Whittingham and defensive coordinator Gary Andersen had drawn it up.

"The defense rose up and had enough left in the tank to get it done," said Whittingham.

"We came together as a family," added Weddle. "Nobody expected us to win this game or even to compete. We proved all the doubters wrong."