We have a percentage goal every week that we try to meet, and it's almost like clockwork. If we meet that percentage of impact plays, then we play a very good defensive game. —Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham
SALT LAKE CITY — Getting both interceptions and sacks has been a bit of a balancing act for the Utah Utes. In recent years, it’s been an abundance of one or the other.
Last season, Utah finished fourth in the nation with 22 interceptions — up from 12 the previous year. The Utes topped the nation with 55 sacks in 2014, but the total lowered to 37 in 2015.
While acknowledging that things kind of flipped those seasons, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham noted that interceptions and sacks are both impact plays. "Obviously picks are takeaways, so that carries more weight than a sack if you had to pick between the two. But we stress making impact plays on defense: tackles for loss, fumble recoveries, interceptions and sacks. Those are the impact-type plays,” Whittingham said. “We have a percentage goal every week that we try to meet, and it's almost like clockwork. If we meet that percentage of impact plays, then we play a very good defensive game. There's a lot of correlation with that. So they're both very valuable.”
In Saturday’s 34-17 win at San Jose State, Utah benefitted from both. The Utes finished with 10 sacks and two interceptions. Next up: Friday’s Pac-12 opener against USC at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
“You’ve got to have a great D-line. Especially in our conference, they throw it so much,” said cornerback Reggie Porter. “So having a great D-line, that’s going to create more opportunities for you to get picks. So it’s nice having the D-line that we have.”
POINT PRODUCTION: Utah’s offense is eager to get on track. The Utes had a season-high 456 yards at San Jose State. However, they’re still working on becoming more productive in the red zone. Through three games, Utah has made 14 trips into scoring territory — finishing with six touchdowns and four field goals.
Quarterback Troy Williams said improvement will take more than eliminating turnovers.
“We just have to go down there with a certain mentality and make sure we punch it in,” he explained. “Field goals are good, but we want to score points to make sure we finish teams off.”
INCREASED PRESSURE: Whittingham explained the difference in pressure applied up front between retired defensive coordinator John Pease and Morgan Scalley, who was promoted to replace him this season.
“Coach Scalley is more inclined to dial up pressure than what we did last year,” said Whittingham, who explained that Pease favored more of a four-man rush and coverage in the back end to get it done. Scalley, he added, is more willing and eager to bring five or more on a higher percentage of the time.
“So that's what you've seen so far. You can't do that unless the secondary holds up,” Whittingham said. “The key to being able to bring pressure is that you have to have confidence in your secondary, and so far that secondary has held up very well."
‘A COMPLETE DEFENSE’: That’s how USC coach Clay Helton described the challenge the Trojans will face at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
“Anytime you’re going against a Kyle Whittingham defense you know you’re in for a day — of not only competition but also a very aggressive style of defense,” said Helton, who noted that the Trojans will be in for a “heckuva challenge” against a squad featuring Hunter Dimick up front and Marcus Williams in the secondary.