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Utah Utes football: U. stellar in several defensive categories in opener

SALT LAKE CITY — One thing was perfectly clear in Utah's 41-0 win over Northern Colorado. The Utes were quite defensive — never allowing the Bears to cross midfield in Thursday's season-opener at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

"We did what we were supposed to do," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said after reviewing the game film Friday morning. "They never crossed the 50-yard line so I don't know what more you could ask out of your defense."

Northern Colorado managed just 114 yards of total offense and seven first downs. The Bears netted only 35 yards on the ground, averaging a paltry 1.5 per carry.

"Obviously, they couldn't run on us. That's our number one priority every game — is to stop the run and just shove it down their throat," said defensive end Joe Kruger. "Once we stop the run that just kind of opens up everything for us. Because then they start throwing the ball and we just unleash our pass rushers and start getting to the quarterback."

Kruger capped all scoring in the contest by returning an interception 24 yards for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter.

The junior said it was every defensive end's dream.

"It was amazing. I read run first and then ran out to the spot I was supposed to be at, turned around and the ball was coming towards me," Kruger explained. "I jumped up, snagged it and started running. I couldn't really believe what was happening."

Before game's end, the Utes had another takeaway. Defensive tackle Seni Fauonuku forced a fumble on Northern Colorado's final possession and Niasi Leota recovered it.

Although pleased with the overall effort, Whittingham acknowledged that he'd like to see the Utes force more than two turnovers in future games.

"We need to get the ball back to our offense a few more times," he said.

The shortcoming, though, failed to overshadow a dominating performance by the defense. The shutout was Utah's first since a 50-0 blanking of Wyoming in 2007.

"We didn't give up any scores. That's always a main stat," said linebacker/defensive end Trevor Reilly. "It's not always yards."

A shutout, he added, is always a top goal.

Besides the turnovers, Utah's defense forced Northern Colorado to punt seven times. Another Bears possession ended with a loss on downs.

Individually, linebacker Dave Fagergren led the Utes with six tackles. Safety Quade Chappuis finished with five, while defensive backs Eric Rowe and Lewis Walker each added four.

Eight Utes contributed to tackles-for-loss, including sacks by Reilly and defensive end Nate Fakahafua. The latter also had two of Utah's six pass breakups and one of three forced fumbles.

As impressive as Utah's defense was, Whittingham recognizes there are bigger challenges on the horizon — beginning with Friday's game at Utah State.

"We're not sitting here thinking we have all the answers on defense," Whittingham said. "Like I said, we did what we were supposed to do."

All in all, Whittingham had the same to say about the season-opener in general.

"I think we played a solid game," he said while noting that the offense took care of the football, not giving up a sack and drawing very few penalties. "We did have a slow start which was the biggest negative to the offense. It took us a couple of drives to get into the end zone."

Whittingham, however, thought the game was a good starting point overall.

"For an opener I thought the mechanics of the game went well," he said. "It was a pretty smooth game from that respect."

The Utes also came out of their first game without any serious injuries.

"We should be OK," Whittingham said. "There's nothing more than some stingers, bumps and bruises and that type of thing."