SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s highly touted defense is eager to make more of an impact. More specifically, impact plays — a combination of sacks and takeaways.
Ideally, the Utes would like to get five or six per game. In last week’s 21-7 loss at Oregon State they had none, despite holding the Beavers to just 226 yards of total offense.
“If there is one knock on the defense right now, it's not creating enough what we term impact plays,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, who noted that the biggest deficiency is an inability to get interceptions.
The Utes led the Pac-12 with 19 in 2011. This season, they’re currently last with two.
“I can’t give you the reason why we haven’t come away with more interceptions,” Whittingham said. “There’s more there to be had. We just haven’t capitalized on them.”
Missed opportunities have been plentiful. Whittingham estimates that it may be as high as 10. Adding to the frustration, he noted, is they haven’t practiced or taught getting interceptions any differently than in the past. Plus, everyone except Conroy Black is back from last year’s secondary.
Whittingham can’t recall a season where the Utes have had such a difficult time intercepting the football.
"Most years we're very good in takeaways,” he said. “This year, we're not so good."
Utah topped the conference in turnover margin last season, but the reduction in interceptions has dropped them to ninth (in a tie with Washington) as the Utes prepare for Saturday’s home game against California.
“We need more of them,” said defensive tackle Dave Kruger. “We are really close to making that happen. It's a matter of the D-line getting pressure and we take that responsibility.”
Kruger added that the goal is to apply enough pressure so quarterbacks will toss it up and allow the Utes to come underneath, catch the ball and make plays.
“Whether it be a run or a pass, if the D-line is getting pressure or getting through the line, or getting knock-back, it's going to slow the play down,” Kruger said. “It's going to let other people come up and make that hit. The hit that may make the quarterback throw an interception (or) maybe the hit on the running back will get the ball loose.”
The Utes have done well with the latter. They currently lead the nation with 13 forced fumbles and are tied for first in fumbles returned for touchdowns with three.
Sacks, though, haven’t been as plentiful. Utah has 13 on the season, putting the Utes in a cluster of other teams tied for 63rd nationally.
Defensive tackle Star Lotulelei acknowledged that the team is continually working on the shortcomings. Takeaway circuits and ripping at the ball in scout and crossover work are getting extra emphasis.
Forcing more turnovers, Lotulelei noted, is something the Utes know they can do.
“We're knocking on the door. We should have had a couple last week,” Lotulelei said. “If we did we would have given our offense a lot better field position to get some points up for us."
Safety Brian Blechen said the low number of interceptions, thus far, may be a combination of not making plays and opposing quarterbacks being smarter with the ball after taking note of Utah leading the league in picks a year ago.
Whatever the case, Blechen thinks the current situation involves a mix of being in a slump, bad luck and not making plays.
"I think it'll start to come and once we do make one it can be a domino effect,” he said. “We'll get out of the slump and they'll start coming more and more."
The key, Blechen continued, is for everyone on the defense to just keeping doing the right stuff. If everyone is in proper position and enough pressure is applied, quarterbacks will make errant throws that will tip into the hands of the defense.
“We've just got to stay positive as far as doing our assignments,” Blechen said. “Then when it does come our way we've just got to catch it.”