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Utah Utes football: Utes' defense grounding opponents

Published: Monday, Oct. 17 2011 11:34 p.m. MDT

Utah's Derrick Shelby was named the National Defensive Player of the Week by the Walter Camp Foundation.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — It's been quite some time since Utah's defense has given up a score. Not a single touchdown or field goal has been surrendered over the past 70:39 of game action.

Although the shutout streak began early in the fourth quarter of the Arizona State loss on Oct. 8, its continuation though the Utes' victory at Pittsburgh last Saturday has drawn the most acclaim.

It led to senior end Derrick Shelby being named National Defensive Player of the Week by the Walter Camp Football Foundation.

Shelby was also named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week after making a team-high seven tackles (six solo), 2.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage, two pass breakups, 1.5 sacks and a 21-yard interception return for a touchdown to seal the outcome late in the Utes' 26-14 win over Pitt. The Panthers scored all of their points on special teams plays.

"Derrick was all over the place," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "He made a bunch of plays."

Whittingham added that Shelby is getting better each game.

"I've said this for three straight weeks now — it was Derrick's best game as a Ute," he said.

The 6-foot-3, 271-pounder from Houston acknowledged this week's individual recognition is meaningful.

"It's kind of a dream come true," Shelby said. "Going out there playing, you never look forward to awards or things like that, but to be mentioned with the type of guys that win the award is always a good thing."

So, too, he noted was Utah's team defense at Pitt. The Utes held the Panthers to only 120 total yards and 12 first downs. They limited highly touted running back Ray Graham to only 46 yards rushing. He entered the game as the nation's second-leading rusher.

"Any time you shut down a guy like Ray Graham, you've got to feel good about the defense that you're playing with," Shelby said. "But we can't just dwell on this one. We've got to keep moving forward because we've got a lot of football to play."

Utah opens a season-ending stretch of six consecutive Pac-12 games Saturday against California at AT&T Park in San Francisco. The Utes do so, Shelby explained, on the heels of one of their best defensive efforts ever.

"I believe so. If we would have had a couple of more turnovers, it probably would have been the best all-time," he said. "But that's the best one I can remember so far."

Senior linebacker Chaz Walker, who leads the Utes with 50 tackles, agreed it was probably one of the program's best defensive showings. He'd also put Shelby's individual performance up high.

"The D-line played great and the back end held up so we had a great game," Walker said before noting that Utah's defense can get even better. "Definitely. There's little things we can improve on each and every week and we need to take steps forward."

After shutting down Graham and the rest of Pitt's ground game, the Utes moved up to 13th in the nation in rushing defense. They're giving up just 94.5 yards per game on the ground.

Overall, Utah is 25th nationally in total defense (326.3 ypg) and 28th in scoring defense (20.5 ppg).

Whittingham called the Pitt game "a solid performance from start to finish defensively." Aside from the second half against Washington, he's been pleased with the run defense all season long. Four opponents were held to double-figures on the ground — BYU (11), Pitt (70), Arizona State (74) and Montana State (75).

"The front seven we have is very physical," Whitttingham said. "It starts up front."

The line, he continued, is enabling the linebackers to scrape and flow and do the things they need to do. The secondary has also contributed mightily.

"In order to load the box and play man coverage, you've got to be able to cover — one-on-one," Whittingham said. "So if we couldn't cover one-on-one on the outside, we wouldn't be able to load the box up like we do."

This week, Utah's defense faces a California offense that has had more success passing (299.3 ypg) than rushing (132.7 ypg) the ball this season. The Golden Bears are averaging 436.5 yards of total offense.

"It's definitely going to be hard-nosed on defense and we've got to come out and play defensive-sound football," Walker said.

Getting it done

How the Utes rank nationally and in the Pac-12:

Category Pac-12 NCAA

Rushing defense 2nd 13th

(94.5 yards per game)

Total defense 2nd 25th

(326.3 yards per game)

Scoring defense 2nd 28th

(20.5 points per game)

Pass efficiency 2nd 31st

(116.8 rating)

Passing defense 3rd 76th

(231.8 yards per game)

Utes on the air

Utah (3-3, 0-3 Pac-12) at California (3-3, 0-3)

Saturday, 5 p.m. MT

AT&T Park, San Francisco

TV: KJZZ

Radio: 700 AM

Email: dirk@desnews.com

twitter: @dirkfacer

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