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How an ‘opportunistic’ Utah defense set the tone — again — in another victory over BYU

The Utes score two touchdowns on takeaways in season-opening win

Utah defensive end Mika Tafua (42) runs out of the pile with a recovered fumble giving the Utes possession in BYU territory during the second half of the Utah-BYU game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019.
Utah defensive end Mika Tafua (42) runs out of the pile with a recovered fumble giving the Utes possession in BYU territory during the second half of the Utah-BYU game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019.
Colter Peterson, Deseret News

PROVO — Two defensive scores made a big difference in 14th-ranked Utah’s 30-12 win over BYU Thursday night. The Utes made the most of them on a night when the offense got off to a slow start and there were some miscues on special teams.

“You’re not going to lose many football games when you can do that defensively,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, who was pleased with his team’s effort throughout the 100th meeting between the two rivals. “We’ve got some playmakers over there. We’ve got some playmakers and they played well tonight.”

The Utes held the Cougars to 92 yards rushing and wound up with three takeaways. They made six tackles for loss with four pass breakups and a sack.

Whittingham had plenty of praise for Utah’s “opportunistic” defense following the season opener at LaVell Edwards Stadium.

“That’s what great defenses do. They make big plays and they score,” Whittingham said. “We have a mantra defensively, four and a score. Four takeaways and one score. That’s ideal.”

The Utes exceeded that in a big way — getting more than one defensive score for the third time against the Cougars over the last eight meetings.

Since 2011, Utah’s defense has returned six interceptions and three fumbles for touchdowns against BYU. The Pac-12 era tally, accompanied by victories each year, began with two fumbles the first year and one in 2012. The pick-sixs started with two in the 2015 Las Vegas Bowl and single scores in 2016 and 2018.

Thursday night, the defensive touchdowns included a 38-yard return by linebacker Francis Bernard in the second quarter and a 39-yard score from safety Julian Blackmon in the fourth.

“We’ve got good players. Good players that buy into what we do,” said defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley. “Sometimes (takeaways) come in droves and sometimes you’re fighting and scrapping to every single one you get, and today was one of those days where it just happened to be in our favor.”

Prior to Blackmon’s TD, defensive end Mika Tafua recovered a fumble by the Cougars. Three plays later, Zack Moss capped things off with a 4-yard run across the goal line.

The contributions overshadowed some early challenges the defense faced. Utah surrendered 196 yards in the first half and allowed BYU to convert on 4 of 9 third-down opportunities. Despite bending, the Utes gave up only two field goals during the stretch. The Cougars scored on kicks of 32 and 37 yards by Jake Oldroyd.

Scalley credited BYU for making Utah play assignment-sound football.

“They made some plays and that’s going to happen. Some of its being assignment-sound,” he explained. “But at the end of the day, they’re not going to beat you kicking field goals and our guys do a nice job in the red zone.”

The takeaways, Scalley added, were huge.

Utah never trailed and held a 9-6 advantage at halftime. The touchdown by Bernard put the Utes ahead for good.

“It was fun. Coming into the stadium there was a lot of emotions going on just because this place is special to me. I spent two years here and I enjoyed my time here,” said Bernard, who played for BYU in 2015 and 2016 before transferring to Utah. “But to go out the way we went out it was fun and getting that pick-six was amazing.”

Utah’s lead swelled to 30-6 early in the fourth quarter. It was 30-12 by the time a 54-minute lightning delay interrupted play.

And that’s how it ended as Utah claimed its ninth consecutive win in the Rivalry Game. The Utes face Northern Illinois at home on Sept. 7.

“We come into the week just trying to get as many turnovers as we can,” Blackmon said. “So it all has to do with the coaches and the gameplay that they put in. So we just try to execute as best we can and I feel like we did that today.”

The Utes had standout performances on offense as well. Moss had 181 yards rushing, while quarterback Tyler Huntley completed 13 of 16 passes for 106 yards. Demari Simpkins led the receiving corps with four catches.

Wide receiver Britain Covey said the offense gains confidence going against the Utah defense in practice each day. He said they know they won’t face anyone better.