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Utah’s shorthanded defense showed off its depth against Washington State

Utah was down three defensive starters, but that didn’t matter much as the replacements stepped up in the Utes’ 24-13 victory.

Washington State quarterback Jarrett Guarantano’s (18) helmet comes off while he’s tackled by Utah defenders during an NCAA college football game at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021 in Salt Lake City. Utah won the game 24-13.
Washington State quarterback Jarrett Guarantano’s (18) helmet comes off while he’s tackled by Utah defenders during an NCAA college football game at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021 in Salt Lake City. Utah won the game 24-13.
Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

Going into Saturday’s Pac-12 opener against Washington State, Utah’s defense was short-handed. Three starters — linebacker Nephi Sewell, cornerback JaTravis Broughton and defensive lineman Viane Moala — were all sidelined due to injuries.

Fortunately for Utah, their backups stepped up and played key roles in the Utes’ 24-13 victory at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

“I thought the defense played outstanding,” said coach Kyle Whittingham.

Freshman linebacker Karene Reid picked off WSU quarterback Jarrett Guarantano late in the first quarter and he ended up recording 15 tackles and a sack.

“It was great. I think it started with the D-line,” said Reid, a Timpview High product. “It enabled us ‘backers to come up and make tackles.”

“Karene played very well,” Whittingham said. “We were down three defensive starters with Viane, JT and Nephi Sewell. Their replacements picked up the slack.”

Junior Tafuna, playing in place of Moala, who has been lost for the season, recorded a seven-yard sack on the final play of the first quarter.

Meanwhile, the Utes put the heat on Cougar quarterbacks all day long, recording eight sacks, and cornerback Clark Phillips had a 54-yard pick-six with 2:19 remaining that closed out the game.

“It’s special. You film study, you prepare, you game-plan every week like it’s going to come to you like a pick-six,” Phillips said of that play. “So when it happens, you take advantage of it and you celebrate with your guys.”

“Clark is a dynamic playmaker. He’s got a ton of ability. He’s only got eight games under his belt but he’s playing like a seasoned vet,” Whittingham said. “He had a nice return and showed some real moves in the open field and returned the football.”

Overall, Whittingham loved what he saw from his defense.

“We got after the quarterback, which is a plus,” he said. “We hadn’t done a lot of that this year.”

However, there was some sobering news as well.

After the game, Whittingham noted that three safeties — Vonte Davis, Brandon McKinney and Cole Bishop — all suffered injuries Saturday.

They will be evaluated during the upcoming bye week.