SALT LAKE CITY — Even in the bleakest moments of the season, the University of Utah has had something to hold onto — one of the best defenses in the Pac-12.
"They've been outstanding for the entire season," said head coach Kyle Whittingham after Utah's defense sparked the team to an impressive 31-6 victory against UCLA Saturday night at Rice-Eccles. "They're not at or near the top of most defensive categories for no reason. It's because they're playing well week in and week out. That's a great credit to our players and the defensive staff."
The Utah defense was just one of the stars in a crucial Pac-12 win. The victory means the 6-4 Utes are now bowl eligible, something that didn't look like a realistic possibility just a few weeks ago. Both players and coaches said being 3-4 with a sputtering offense was difficult to deal with.
"We don't know how to lose here," said offensive lineman John Cullen.
But what Utah can always count on, even in a rollercoaster season like this one, is that its defense will make life difficult for opponents.
"With the defense we've got," said quarterback Jon Hays, "if we can put up points, over 20 is enough. Guys are going to have a hard time scoring three times on our defense."
And Saturday night, the Utes used the snow, the cold and their defensive grit to wreak havoc on the team that was tied for the South Division lead at the start of the day. Senior cornerback Conroy Black had two interceptions, the second of which he returned for a touchdown at 9:03 in the fourth quarter.
Consider this: Eric Rowe, Joe Kruger and Nai Fotu each had sacks that pushed the Bruins back 8 or more yards each time. Rowe also broke up two pass plays. The team's decision to move Brian Blechen from linebacker to safety paid off as he had another impressive outing.
Whittingham said that had more to do with the team's depth on defense.
"He's going to fly around and make plays wherever he's at, I believe," said Whittingham of the sophomore. "Out of necessity we had to move him to safety when we lost Keith McGill, and with the emergence of Trevor Reilly. That played as much into it as losing Keith was Trevor Reilly's play, and he was starting to make an impact. It's all about getting the best 11 on the field, and in order to do that the guys who are valuable to us now, that's the best set-up for us."
Any time the Bruins started to get some offensive momentum, the Utah defense stole it. The final straw was when Black returned his second interception 67-yards for a touchdown.
"He's played exceptionally well," said Whittingham. "He's really starting to come into is own, and he's playing the position just like we need it to be played."
He praised all of the players who share time at corner.
"You can't play the kind of defense we play, all the man-to-man stuff, without great technique and fundamentals, and those guys are doing that," he said.
The defense had a little extra motivation when former Ute and current San Diego Charger defensive back Eric Weddle showed up at the game. He addressed the players — especially the defense — before Saturday's game.
"He talked about how this is his first home game that he's been able to get back to in four or five years," said Blechen. "He asked us to play for him … It was cool to see him back and watching our game, so we were not just playing for ourselves and the coaches, but for everyone who used to wear this uniform."
And playing defense for Utah is becoming it's own badge of honor.
"I'm very proud of our guys, and the way they've responded the last three weeks," said Whittingham. "We had some disappointments and didn't play very well a time or two. But, we seem to be developing a rhythm as a football team."