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Utes get defensive and it pays off big-time against usually explosive Washington State

Utah improves to 4-1 overall and 1-1 in Pac-12 play.

SHARE Utes get defensive and it pays off big-time against usually explosive Washington State

Utah Utes defensive back Terrell Burgess (26) and teammates hype up the crowd at the end of the third quarter against the against the Washington State Cougars at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Eight days after struggling in a loss at USC, Utah’s defense bounced back in a big way Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium. 

The Utes defended the pass well, make that extremely well, in a 38-13 victory over Washington State. The Cougars, who came in leading the nation with nearly 500 yards passing per game, managed just 252 on a night when quarterback Anthony Gordon completed 30-of-49 passes and was intercepted twice.

“It was just being who we are. I mean, I don’t know what everybody thought we were after last week,” said cornerback Jaylon Johnson. “We were just being the same DBs we’ve always been, making plays on the ball and playing good defense.”

“We couldn’t sit there and sulk. Last week is what it was. We just came out and tried to get better and showed that today.” — Utah cornerback Jaylon Johnson

After throwing a Pac-12 record nine touchdowns a week ago against UCLA, Gordon was held to just one. Utah broke up 12 passes with Johnson and linebacker Francis Bernard recording interceptions.

“We just put in the work. We worked hard,” Johnson said. “We studied film and we made plays on the ball today. It was nothing different. We didn’t approach the game any different. We were the same people that we’ve always been.”

Johnson added that they didn’t make plays last week and they did Saturday.

Cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah had similar thoughts.

“It was not a huge difference. I know people will say a lot of different things just watching the game, but for us it was just making the plays that we were supposed to,” he said. “We had opportunities at USC to make plays on the ball and we didn’t. So you go back and you try to refine certain practice techniques. You go back to refining drills and say: ‘What can we do differently?’ And it was just us instilling that confidence.”

Shah acknowledged that you really get down after a game like the 30-23 loss at USC, where the Trojans threw three touchdown passes. However, Shah credits the players for believing in the direction of defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley and the coaching.

“So it’s really just making plays that we should have made at SC. That’s all,” said Shah, who insists it wasn’t about redemption or anything like that. “We’ve got a good group of boys. Just make the plays when you’re given the opportunity.”

The defensive line and linebackers also drew praise for their play. Contributions were plentiful. Safety Terrell Burgess recorded three pass breakups, while Johnson finished with two. The group notching one included Bernard, nickel back Javelin Guidry, safety Julian Blackmon, defensive end Mika Tafua, cornerback Josh Nurse, cornerback Tareke Lewis and defensive tackle Hauati Pututau. Burgess and defensive tackle John Penisini made tackles for loss. Penisini registered a sack.

“Going into this week we worked our butts off and had a chip on our shoulder knowing what we’re capable of,” Bernard said of slowing Washington State’s “Air Raid” offense. “We put the time in this week, and came out today and showed it.”

The Cougars wound up with 313 yards of total offense, 18 first downs and 3-of-12 success rate on third down. 

“We couldn’t sit there and sulk. Last week is what it was,” Johnson explained. “We just came out and tried to get better and showed that today.”

It certainly pleased Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. The Utes held Washington State scoreless in the second half. 

“Our secondary played much better. They wanted redemption because we didn’t play well back there last week. We know we’re better than that. This week, they came out with purpose,” Whittingham said. “Give credit to coach Scalley and the defensive coaches on having a great game plan — showed them some looks we haven’t showed before, but I’m sure they’ve seen them before. It worked and it was outstanding.” 

Whittingham also complimented the offense. Quarterback Tyler Huntley led an attack that racked up 526 yards. The senior completed 21-of-30 passes for 334 yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed for 31 yards and two scores.

“Our best defense tonight was our offense. They kept moving the ball and moving the chains and making first downs,” Whittingham said. “There was a lot of production out there and it was a team win.”

At 4-1 overall and 1-1 in Pac-12 play, the 19th-ranked Utes have a bye next week. They return to action Oct. 12 at Oregon State.

“It’s great to go into a bye week with a win. You don’t want to go into a bye week and sit on a loss for two weeks,” Whittingham said. “We’ve got some momentum back in our favor. We’ll go into the bye week and get some rest and hopefully get our tailback back and get ready for the next one.”