Brad Rock: Utah Utes will once again need their stellar defense

Published: Friday, Dec. 30 2011 10:58 p.m. MST

Utah Head Coach Kyle Whittingham watches as the University of Utah practices Thursday, Dec. 8, 2011 during preparations to play Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

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EL PASO, Texas — Some things never change. For instance, the way coaches rave about the bowls they attend. It could be the Landfill Bowl and they'd call it the greatest invention since indoor plumbing.

Then there's the situation with the Utes as they enter Saturday's Sun Bowl: They will live and die with their defense. Again. It's an immutable fact, the only given in a season with plenty of unfor-givens. John White had some fine rushing days, but he also had days when he moved like a bug against a screen. In the five games he rushed for under 100 yards, Utah lost.

White might well be great in the bowl game. Georgia Tech has one of the nation's weaker run defenses. Quarterback Jon Hays might get enough wide open chances to get a couple of scores. But if the Utes can't contain Tech's triple option, you can ship them home, prepaid.

This one will be as over as disco.

"We have a plan to win at Utah that we follow: Play great defense, No. 1, and take care of the football, No. 2," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham.

"That's Coach Whittingham's philosophy, and No. 1 in the plan is great defense," safeties coach Morgan Scalley said. "If you don't play great defense, no matter how the offense is doing, you're going to struggle."

Plan No. 3: Look for a hidey-hole.

Defending won't be as easy as it was on other occasions. Georgia Tech's offense is a combination of sleight-of-hand, misdirection, execution and the ol' bait-and-switch. Utah dealt with similar problems for decades when it played against Air Force's option; stopping it takes practice. It's not something you pick it up in a couple of run-through sessions.

"It's very difficult to stop. We've been working on it for 15 practices now, and we can line up and get our assignments down, but we cannot duplicate the speed and precision in the way they run that offense," Whittingham said. "So we have a big challenge ahead of us."

Though Utah has both desire and talent defensively, it also has injuries. Tackle Dave Kruger is out with a leg infection. Backup LT Tuipulotu tore knee ligaments several weeks ago.

If this story of defensive life support seems familiar, that's because it has been the same since quarterback Jordan Wynn went down in the season's fourth game. It has always been a Utah credo, but this year it's been an ultimatum.

It's unfair to put it all on the defense, but there you go. It is all on the defense. This year's Utes just aren't equipped to score a lot of points. Hays parachuted in this summer as a worst-case option, without even the benefit of spring ball. It isn't his fault he was ill-equipped to call signals at a BCS school. In spurts, he did surprisingly well.

But if they need execution on a last-minute drive, he's probably not the man. Nor is he the man if Utah falls behind by two touchdowns early in the game.

White has been outstanding, a credit to his resourcefulness. But it doesn't take a genius to know that keying on him is, well, a key. Hence, the Utes are back in a familiar position of hoping their defense holds and the offense gets loose for a few plays.

Whittingham's edict to his defense has been the same all season: Shutout or shut up.

"Absolutely," Whittingham said.

That's not to say the Utah defense has been blaming the offense, even during the four-game conference losing streak.

"We really haven't had a problem with that," Whittingham said.

But it does illustrate how much the Utes rely on stopping opponents.

"Our mantra on defense is if we can score 10 points, then we'd better give up nine or less, whatever situation dictates," Whittingham said.

"Our main goal is to try and get a shutout every game," defensive lineman Joe Kruger said.

So by any calculation, Utah has one realistic chance to win: Stop the Yellow Jackets cold. If Georgia Tech can't move, it can't score.

Or in financial terms, you can't spend what you don't have.

Email: rock@desnews.com

twitter: @rockmonster

Facebook: Rockmonsterunplugged

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