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Coach praises Utah defense

A host of Utes swarm San Diego State's Atiyyah Henderson. Coach Kyle Whittingham said the defense was the "real story line" of Utah's 23-7 win Saturday.
A host of Utes swarm San Diego State's Atiyyah Henderson. Coach Kyle Whittingham said the defense was the "real story line" of Utah's 23-7 win Saturday.
Scott G. Winterton, Deseret Morning News

After Utah's 23-7 win over San Diego State on Saturday afternoon, a lot of talk centered on Darrell Mack's running, Brian Johnson's passing, Corbin Louks' big plays and Louis Sakoda's kicking and, uh, passing.

So what was the first thing coach Kyle Whittingham talked about in his postgame press conference?

The defense, of course.

"The real story line of the game was the defense," Whittingham said. "Our defense played extremely well. We held them to just 12 first downs and seven points. I'm very proud of the way the defense played."

The Ute defense held the Aztecs in check most of the day, allowing just 211 total yards, and came up with five sacks and 10 tackles for losses.

Ute defensive coordinator Gary Andersen couldn't have been more pleased with the play of his defense.

"The kids executed very well," he said. "The most encouraging thing to me is how we finished them off. We dominated the third quarter, and we dominated the second quarter."

The final numbers confirm what Andersen said. The Utes allowed just 43 yards in the third quarter and 24 in the final quarter. Utah also dominated on defense in the first quarter, allowing a mere 38 yards.

It was in the second quarter where the Aztecs got their only real offense of the day, thanks in large part to a trick play that fooled the Utes for a 35-yard gain and led to the Aztecs' only touchdown of the day.

Both Whittingham and Andersen had praise for Nai Fotu, a true freshman from Laie, Hawaii.

Fotu was making his first appearance at linebacker after playing special teams all season, and he came up with a couple of the most memorable defensive plays.

The first came early in the third quarter when he dropped O'Connell for a 5-yard loss and forced a fumble that the Aztecs recovered. The second was a hit Fotu put on Atiyyah Henderson on a run up the middle that leveled the Aztecs' running back and drew oohs and aahs from the crowd, both when it happened and when it was shown on the replay.

"It felt good to play," Fotu said. "I just tried to play my heart out."

Andersen said the Utes put in some special "packages" for Fotu and that he was in about 15 plays during the game. Whittingham compared the packages to the ones the Utes put in for Louks, another true freshman, and said Fotu played "15 to 20 plays."

When told what his coaches said, Fotu said, "Really? I thought I only played about seven plays."

Ute fans in the stands probably thought Fotu had 50 plays because of how noticeable he was on the big plays he made.

Asked if he heard the crowd reaction to his big hits, Fotu replied, "Not really. I was so excited, I couldn't hear anything."

"He's a flashy player and has great quickness coming off the edge," Whittingham said. "He's actually our quickest linebacker. He's an explosive player who is lightning-quick and strong."

Besides Fotu, the defense got excellent performances from Stevenson Sylvester, who led the team with eight tackles, and Gabe Long and Joe Jiannoni, who each had five tackles.

Sean Smith came up with a key interception in the first half, which stopped an SDSU drive, while R.J. Stanford recovered a fumble, forced by Brice McCain.