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Utah's defense playing at a high level with USC in town

Utah's Chase Hansen breaks up a pass to USC Trojans wide receiver Deontay Burnett in Los Angeles on Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017.
Utah defensive back Chase Hansen breaks up a pass to USC Trojans wide receiver Deontay Burnett in Los Angeles on Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017. The Utes and Trojans meet Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium with Pac-12 South title chase implications on the line.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s defense is performing well through six games. The Utes ranked second in the nation in rushing defense and red zone defense. They also lead the Pac-12 in total defense, scoring defense, pass efficiency defense, sacks and opponent third-down conversions.

Utah is second in the conference in defensive touchdowns, first-down defense and tackles for loss while ranking third in interceptions.

“I think it means something. We have goals and a lot of those are statistically based obviously,” said senior linebacker Chase Hansen, who leads the Pac-12 with 1.8 tackles for loss per game. “To say that we’re better than everyone else in the Pac-12 in a lot of categories, I think, is a positive. We don’t base everything off of that, but it’s good to know that we’re doing a good job statistically as well.”

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham also appreciates what’s going on with the stats.

“Well, we’re halfway in. It speaks to their work ethic and the effort that they play with and guys that are playmakers on the defense,” he said. “The end result is some good numbers.”

Whittingham, however, noted that it's only the midpoint mark of the season and there’s a lot of football left to play.

“But they should be proud of what they’ve done so far,” he added.

Defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley said he’s proud of the way the Utes are performing.

“They’re playing hard. We go from week to week,” he explained. “But it’s mid-season. Talk to me about stats at the end of the season.”

On Saturday, the Utes face a USC team featuring freshman quarterback J.T. Daniels. Hansen expects the Trojans to be more than just a tough test in the throw game.

“They have great athletes at every position. They have a great run game, a great o-line. I think they’re capable of doing a lot of things,” Hansen said. “They always are. So we have to prepare for anything. They’re a tough team.”

USC was picked to win the Pac-12 South in the conference’s preseason media poll. The Trojans (4-2, 3-1) can take a big step in reaching such expectations with a victory over the Utes (4-2, 2-2).

Utah, in turn, can also move into a prime position with a triumph. The Utes have won two straight games to climb back into contention.

“Every conference game is very important going forward,” acknowledged Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, who noted that USC is coming off some nice wins. al“So, it should be an exciting game with a great atmosphere. We are hoping our fans come out in full force as usual and everybody is there to make it a great atmosphere."

The Utes and Trojans have split their last four meetings with both teams prevailing at home twice. Overall, the point differential over the games played since 2014 is just 12 points. USC edged Utah 28-27 in 2017 in Los Angeles.

“It has been back and forth with close and competitive games,” Whittingham said. “Obviously, last year it went right down to the wire with the two-point conversion we weren't able to convert.”

This time, though, the Utes may be peaking offensively this time around. They racked up 495 yards in last week’s 42-10 win over Arizona.

“They can be explosive downfield and they’re taking those shots now. The running game is going. It’s allowed some one-on-one matchups and now they’re dialing them up and they’re hitting them,” USC coach Clay Helton said on his weekly radio show. “And the key is (Tyler) Huntley. When he is hot, he’s red hot. The key for us is to cool him off, hopefully a little bit.”


USC (4-2, 3-1) at Utah (4-2, 2-2)

Rice-Eccles Stadium

Saturday, 6 p.m.

TV: Pac-12 Networks

Radio: ESPN 700AM