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How does Kyle Whittingham assess Utes’ new-look defense after two games?

Utah limited its opponents, USC and Washington, just 34% on third down conversion attempts and it is allowing 90.5 rushing yards per game, which ranks No. 1 in the Pac-12 and No. 7 in the FBS. 

Utah safety Zemaiah Vaughn runs 73 yards as quarterback Jake Bentley (8) runs with him on the sideline after Vaughn intercepted a pass against Washington during game, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020, in Seattle. After shutting out the Huskies during the first half, the Utes yielded 24 second-half points and fell, 24-21.
AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

While Utah’s offensive struggles this season have been well-chronicled, the young Utes defense, which replaced nine starters from a year ago, has been solid overall — with room for improvement, of course.

Utah limited its two opponents, USC and Washington, to just 34% on third down conversion attempts and it is allowing only 90.5 rushing yards per game, which ranks No. 1 in the Pac-12 and No. 7 in the FBS.

The Ute defense is looking to take another step forward Saturday (8:30 p.m. MST, ESPN) when Utah hosts Oregon State.

The secondary recorded three interceptions against the Huskies last week by three different players — senior Vonte Davis, freshman Faybian Marks and freshman Zemaiah Vaughn.

“The secondary made some plays,” said coach Kyle Whittingham. “A lot to build on.”

“As a young secondary, we really showed up for both games,” said Davis, a cornerback. “There’s still stuff that we can work on but as far as replacing the starters from last year, I think we’re doing a pretty good job.”

Sophomore JaTravis Broughton starts at one cornerback spot. Two true freshmen that also start in the secondary — cornerback Clark Phillips and safety Nate Ritchie — have acquitted themselves well, according to Whittingham.

“I think they’ve played exceptionally well given the circumstances and they’ve made big improvements from game 1 to game 2,” he said. “Nate had a tough matchup with that tight end from Washington (Cade Otton) this past week. He’s a heckuva player, that tight end is.”

Asked about Ritchie, Davis said, “He’s performed nicely. He’s doing a good job for his first year here. There are still things he can learn and get better at, but as far as a freshman coming in and starting like he’s doing, I think he’s doing a pretty good job.”

Whittingham also praised Marks, another true freshman.

“So those three true freshmen were on the field a bunch together in the game on Saturday,” he said. “We came away with three interceptions. They held down the fort. (Washington) did throw for about 250 but in this day and age of football, that’s not a ton of yards. When you combine that with only 88 rushing yards, the defense played pretty darn good.”

Utah seized a 21-0 halftime lead last weekend at Washington before getting outscored 24-0 in the second half. The Utes led 21-17 with 4:31 remaining in the game when the Huskies’ offense took over on their own 12-yard line.

“If they get a stop on that last drive, and hold them to 17 and we win the game, then we’re all feeling really good about ourselves right now,” Whittingham said of his defensive players. “But that’s not the case. We weren’t able to get that stop. It’s unfortunate. But those guys are progressing.”

Washington quarterback Dylan Morris, right, passes under pressure from Utah defensive end Maxs Tupai during game, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020, in Seattle.
Ted S. Warren, Associated Press

Whittingham also mentioned defensive lineman Tennessee Pututau as a freshman that’s performed well this season, as well as freshman linebacker Sione Fotu.

“He’s a guy that’s not getting as much recognition as he should,” Whittingham said of Fotu. “He’s been very productive for us.”

One issue that concerns Whittingham is not enough pressure on Washington’s quarterback, freshman Dylan Morris. Against USC, Utah had three sacks but zero against the Huskies.

Whittingham wants to see a stronger pass rush moving forward.

“It wasn’t good enough on Saturday. It was pretty good the week before,” he said. “We did apply some pressure. Most of the pressure we dialed up happened to be versus the run, which helped us as well in defending the run.”

Once again, Whittingham referenced Washington’s game-winning drive.

“We could have used a sack on that last drive. That last drive was 12 plays and 80-something yards. That’s when you need a big sack to thwart a drive,” he said. “We weren’t able to do that.

“It’s not due to a lack of effort. Our guys are playing hard and doing everything they can. But that was a concern last week. It’s not what we usually are in the pass rush. We’re usually much more effective. That’s something that hopefully we get back this week.”