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‘It’s not us’: Why Utah doesn’t look like its usual self defensively

The Utes yielded 260 yards on the ground to Oregon State, and things won’t get much easier when UCLA visits this week. The Bruins are the No. 2-ranked running team in the Pac-12 this season

Oregon State running back Trey Lowe is brought down by Utah’s Nephi Sewell during game Oct. 23, 2021, in Corvallis, Ore.
Oregon State running back Trey Lowe is brought down by Utah linebacker Nephi Sewell during game Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021, in Corvallis, Ore. The Utah defense didn’t have an answer for the Beavers’ vaunted running attack.
Amanda Loman, Associated Press

This is not something Utah’s Kyle Whittingham has been accustomed to during his coaching career.

Currently, the Utes are ranked No. 66 nationally in rush defense, giving up an average of 147.1 yards per game — including 260 yards surrendered in last Saturday’s 42-34 loss at Oregon State.

Beavers running back B.J. Baylor ran for 152 yards and a touchdown against Utah.

“Defensively, we didn’t play well at all. We were soft in the run game,” Whittingham said Monday morning. “They rushed for 260 yards, over six yards per carry. We knew going in that if Oregon State was able to do what they usually do, it wasn’t going to be a good situation for us. They did exactly that. They ran the football very effectively.”

It wasn’t the first time that’s happened this season.

Utah watched BYU run for 231 yards and San Diego State picked up 204 yards on the ground in September in its other two losses.

“We weren’t our usual selves on defense,” Whittingham said. “Earlier in the year, we had that same issue and it went away. It showed back up on Saturday.”

The Utes will be trying to fix that issue before hosting UCLA Saturday (8 p.m. MDT, ESPN).

The Bruins are No. 2 in the Pac-12, behind OSU, in rushing this season. UCLA averages 206 rushing yards per game, led by running backs Zach Charbonnet (732 yards, seven touchdowns this season) and Brittain Brown (513 yards, six TDs) and quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson (364 yards, seven TDs).

According to Whittingham, the solution to Utah’s run defense issues is physicality.

“I don’t think there will be wholesale changes defensively. The things that really hurt us against Oregon State were not schematics. It was physically getting beat at the point of attack — getting blocked, not coming off a block, popping out of a gap,” he said. “It wasn’t like we were just having mental mistakes everywhere and we needed a different scheme.

“We just need to play more sound in the front seven. We also gave up some big plays downfield. We had too many big plays in the throw game against Oregon State but it was the run game that did us in.”

The Utes have started three freshmen defensive linemen — Van Fillinger, Junior Tafuna and Tennessee Pututau — which is a fact, not an excuse, Whittingham said.

“We’re just not quite where we need to be up front yet. We’ve had flashes during the course of the year but not quite enough consistency.”

How does the program improve in the physicality department?

“You recruit it, first of all. We have some front guys that aren’t quite yet as big and strong as they’re going to be. They’re going to be very good,” Whittingham said. “We have a lot of confidence in them going forward. Right now, we don’t have the 315-pound Leki Fotus and guys that we’ve had in the middle that are 295, 290-ish. They’re getting bigger and better as time goes on.”

Star linebacker Devin Lloyd was ejected for targeting in the second half of the Oregon State game, which means he’ll be sidelined for the first half against UCLA.

“We lost Devin, that was obviously a blow. But we had been soft (against the run) before he was gone,” Whittingham said. “That wasn’t the key to the whole thing. We certainly missed him when he got ejected.”

Whittingham lamented that his defense has been “inconsistent” throughout the season.

“More good than bad. Some games where it’s not us,” he said. “It’s not our usual defensive output.”

And if the Utes are to reach their goal of winning a Pac-12 title, they need to return to looking like themselves defensively. And soon.