Utes pursuing more takeaways on defense

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 3 2014 8:00 p.m. MDT

Utah Utes defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake instructs during spring practice in Salt Lake City Tuesday, March 18, 2014.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah coach Kyle Whittingham called it a “huge negative.” Despite his team’s 56-14 win over Idaho State last Thursday, he wasn’t pleased the Utes wound up minus-one in the turnover margin.

“I expressed to the team and the coaching staff we’re going to have a very, very difficult time in the Pac-12 if that shows up in Pac-12 games — it’s tough to win,” Whittingham said. “We’ve got to get that reversed. That was an Achilles' heel for us last year.”

Whittingham then acknowledged that it really wasn’t the turnovers. Utah lost one fumble in the game, which he noted was not excessive.

“But we’ve got to get takeaways. That’s the key,” Whittingham said. “The defense has got to start taking the ball away.”

The Utes didn’t recover a fumble or intercept a pass against the Bengals.

“There weren’t plenty of opportunities in that game but there were a couple,” said safeties coach Morgan Scalley. “Those are the ones we’ve got to capitalize on.”

Defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake referenced two forced fumbles that weren’t recovered and an interception opportunity that went through a defender’s hands. The guys, he explained, are trying really hard and the crazy thing with the fumbles is they tried to pick up the ball and run instead of just securing the turnover.

“I could sit here and focus only on turnovers the whole practice but we’ve got a job to do and that’s win games. Turnovers will come. I keep telling the players they’ll come,” Sitake said. “Just keep doing your job. Otherwise if you keep doing it they’re going to take their eyes off of their technique and their fundamentals and sacrifice everything for the sake of a turnover.

“As great as a turnover is, it’s not worth sacrificing everything — where you have guys giving up big plays because they’re trying to make the big home run. Sometimes it’s OK just getting on base and getting in scoring position,” he continued. “I think as we keep going through this, the turnovers will happen. I think the floodgates will open eventually and it's bound to happen soon.”

Interceptions, in particular, have been in short supply. Utah picked off only three passes last season. Whittingham is hopeful that having a guy with great ball skills like Dominique Hatfield at cornerback will help bolster the numbers.

USC intercepted Fresno State, Utah’s opponent on Saturday, four times last week.

The Utes, meanwhile, aren’t dwelling on their low number of picks as of late. Scalley said they can’t panic or think about it too much. If they do their alignment and assignment, balls are going to come and then they’ve just got to make plays.

“We practice it. It’s a point of emphasis,” Scalley said. “With as much quick game as we’re getting, what happens is you’ve got to have batted balls and you’ve got to be able to capitalize on stuff like that."

PAPA PHILLIPS: Utah kicker Andy Phillips and his wife Megan are the proud parents of a baby boy. Maximus Andrew Phillips was born Tuesday evening around 6, checking in at 7 pounds, 14 ounces and 21 inches.

“It just makes me happy, motivated. I’m very blessed,” Phillips said. “Everything went smoothly. You couldn’t have asked for a better baby, a better delivery — my wife was a champ.”

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